Yeasayer’s ‘All Hour Cymbals’ Turns 10
Indie rock's obsession with '60s psychedelic pop dates back to the genre's development in the early '80s, and for a minute in the late '00s, it was the defining sound of indie rock. Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion and Strawberry Jam, Panda Bear's Person Pitch, Grizzly Bear's Veckatimest, MGMT's Oracular Spectacular, and Fleet Foxes' self-titled debut were among the most popular, acclaimed, and influential albums in indie at the time, and all of their sounds could be traced back to The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Zombies, Love, and other kaleidoscopic, harmony-laden pop bands of the '60s. From that same era was Yeasayer's debut album All Hour Cymbals, which turns 10 this Monday (10/23). Released the same year as Strawberry Jam and Person Pitch and the same month as Oracular Spectacular, it's just as much a masterful revival of the Summer of Love as those albums, if a bit more underrated. It pulls from tribal rhythms, Indian classical music, choral harmonies, folk music, electronic music, improvisational jams, and other trippy, imaginative sounds. With three core members -- Chris Keating, Anand Wilder, and Ira Wolf Tuton -- who can all sing and who are all experts at at least one instrument, Yeasayer pulled off these sounds on All Hour Cymbals with more craft than your average effects-pedals-fueled psych band. (They did use effects but one of the album's charms is how clear and organic it sounds.) It remains their finest hour and it holds up a decade later.
All Hour Cymbals opens with three of Yeasayer's biggest crowdpleasers -- which all remain live staples today -- showing off the intersection of the band's pop smarts and their trippy side right away. There wasn't a more perfect choice for an opener on this album than "Sunrise," both because of its literal ode to the start of the day and the way the song eases you in to the sound of the album. First it shows off those gorgeous harmonies, then the polyrhythmic percussion, and finally it hits you with the kind of addictive chorus that Yeasayer would write several times throughout their career. Immediately following "Sunrise" is the album's best song, "Wait for the Summer." The first thing you hear is some swirling effects and a psychedelic drone borrowed from Indian classical music, then a tease of the song's recurring Eastern-tinged riff, then Anand Wilder sings that iconic opening line ("life is easier when one of us is dead") before all three members harmonize on a "HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEY!" that still knocks me off my feet all these years later. The song continues toying with those same elements for its entire, genuinely uplifting first section. The next passage introduces tambourine, hand claps, and overlapping vocals that sound like an acid-induced campfire singalong with enough natural reverb for you to really feel the open air. After the first "I'm rising, rising, fallin' down" portion, Chris Keating comes in with his own lead vocals that contrast with the initial singalong at some points and almost mirror it at others, adding to the aural sensory overload. That all eventually fades out into another, quieter "I'm rising, rising, fallin' down," before that fades too and the song is done. Then it's "2080," a paranoid, fear-of-the-future song and the album's most immediate. It's still got the trippy stuff in the background and some airy harmonies in the chorus, but this one's powered by a groovy bassline that actually makes it kinda danceable. And it's got the shouty "YEAH! YEAH!" sections that add a harder edge that goes beyond flower power revival.
When All Hour Cymbals was still new, I found it to be a little too top-heavy after an opening like that. Being followed by the snake-charmer rock of "Germs" -- a song that's almost too weird for its own good -- then the wordless interlude "Ah, Weir," and then a slow, minimal song like "No Need to Worry," it felt like All Hour Cymbals was losing steam. With passing time and repeated listens, though, the album revealed more rewarding moments. "Ah, Weir" proved to be kind of prescient; a few months after this album's release, Fleet Foxes built a career off the same kind of Beach Boys - "Our Prayer" worship. "No Need to Worry" may not hit as hard as the opening three songs right away, but it's filled with so many treats: Sgt. Pepper's style horns, a real-deal guitar solo, and beautiful vocal harmonies that are Beatlesque at times and sound like Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain" at others. (Yeasayer's harmony style actually frequently reminds me of Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain." They'd be perfect to cover it, but as far as I know, the only Rumours song they've covered is "Second Hand News.")
All Hour Cymbals has a real ebb and flow to it, and after the more low-key run of "Germs," "Ah, Weir" and "No Need to Worry," they hit you with two more songs that still could have a similar hit potential to the album's opening three. There's "Forgiveness," which has a real hop in its step and really puts the "pop" in "psych-pop." It bounces back and forth between a hook that has the kind of repetitive vocal and stuttering percussion of electronic music, and a verse that has some of the most traditional pop sounds of their career. Then there's "Wait for the Wintertime," which isn't just the opposite of "Wait for the Summer" in title but melodically too. If "Summer" sounds like the most uplifting trip ever, then "Wintertime" sounds like a very bad trip. Driven by a dark guitar riff that nears proto-metal territory, this one sounds satanic even before you hear the "Wintertime is a razor blade that the devil made" lyric. As screams enter in the background towards the end, the song is still oozing with hallucinogenic vibes. Acid-induced music is always gonna have its dark side, but with "sunshine pop" being a prevailing influence on the type of psych that made it big in the late '00s, a song like "Wait for the Wintertime" was rare.
The next section of All Hour Cymbals is the jam section, with "Waves" and "Worms" that segue into each other so seamlessly that they're actually written as "Worms/Waves" on the back cover, even though they're separate tracks. There's often a disconnect between the modern artists who write psychedelic pop and modern artists who pull from the jamming that came out of '60s psychedelia. Jam bands honor the Grateful Dead's legacy but albums usually take a backseat to the live shows, and album-oriented psych-pop bands don't tend to flaunt too much improvisation. Yeasayer were always an album-oriented band that made time to jam too, and "Waves/Worms" had them offering some of this on the album. (For an idea of the improvisation in their live shows, look up various live videos of "Wait for the Summer" and see how many different ways they've re-interpreted the song. The KEXP video above is a personal favorite.) "Waves" is a full-blown raga rocker that George Harrison would've been proud to write, and "Worms" is mellower, more of a comedown. Then there's the comedown from the comedown, the hidden track "Red Cave" which finds the middle ground between Indian classical music and Celtic folk, and isn't like anything else on the album.
After All Hour Cymbals, Yeasayer never made the same album again. Folky psychedelia gave way to psychedelic synthpop with the breakthrough of Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion and the continued success of MGMT's singles, and Yeasayer eventually followed suit. A second album, Odd Blood, didn't come until 2010 (and first they contributed the highly essential "Tightrope" to Dark Was the Night), and when it did, it came with bubbly pop hits like "Ambling Alp" "Madder Red," and "O.N.E." When R&B entered the indie rock vocabulary in a big way, Yeasayer responded with 2012's Fragrant World. Their latest album, 2016's Amen & Goodbye, took some elements of all three of its predecessors and was their first album to really ignore trends. With the indie-psych trends mostly being a thing of the past and the ability to look back on that era and see who were the real leaders and who were bandwagon jumpers, All Hour Cymbals still emerges as something that stands out among its peers. Yeasayer were never as acclaimed or influential as Animal Collective and never as commercially successful as MGMT, but there still hasn't really been a band that took on folky, globally-inspired psychedelic pop the way Yeasayer did on their debut. At this point, it arguably even rivals plenty of the '60s bands. The pop geniuses of that era didn't tend to sound as consistently druggy as All Hour Cymbals and the acid rock bands didn't tend to write songs as gorgeously catchy as "Wait for the Summer." When you really compare it to the classics, All Hour Cymbals proves to be less of a straight-up revival and more of a modern update anyway.