Since their 2007 debut All Hour Cymbals, Brooklyn’s Yeasayer have been making some of the most interesting and challenging art-rock of the past few years. Their records fuse hip-hop and Afropop to ambient noise and indie-rock, and their tunes are stuffed with compelling lyrical ideas. 2010′s Odd Blood, for instance, was partially inspired by Ray Kurzweil’s dystopian theory of the Singularity. (Google it.) If there were ever a band more suited to DJ’ing an end-of-days party, it’d be Yeasayer.
That experimental streak continues with their latest album Fragrant World. And while the overall musical vibe is a tad mellower – consider it the band’s equivalent of a groove record or something, with all tracks flowing somewhat seamlessly together – the concept is anything but. In fact, it’s kinda scary. “The ideas we’re talking about on this record are human life turning into a commodity and things like that,” says frontman Chris Keating. “It just seems like there’s a slow, slow descent into this shitty, shitty world. Hopefully that won’t happen, and I try not to think about that every day, but it just seems that things are getting kind of bleak.”
Given their wild all-over-the-map sound, it makes sense that Keating has schooled himself on everything from Angolan kuduro music to Bowie’s Berlin period to DJ Shadow’s groundbreaking experiments in sampling. Here, Keating breaks down the five records that changed his outlook on music.
Keating was in his teens when he discovered DJ Josh Davis's breakthrough debut, released after grunge hit its peak in the early '90s. But it took a while for him to be fully immersed in Shadow's brilliant fusion of disparate samples. "I didn't really get it," he says. "It sounded like a weird film score, and it was very dark. But it just grew on me, and by the end of high school, all I wanted to do was listen to it. It was certainly a formative use of that sampling technology, which is a really exciting idea. I'm not a guitar player or anything, and throughout that era I found myself explaining to people why it's a legit art form. I still do sometimes. You'll run into a rock 'n' roll dude who is like, 'What the hell?' And Endtroducingâ€¦ still sounds fresh today."
Of Bowie's Berlin trilogy of records, Keating prefers the first of Bowie's series. "It's a very transitional and interesting period in his music," he says. "It's just a record where the a-side and the b-side are totally different from each other. It's very immediate and soulful on the first side and the second side is all ambient music. Just fascinating. Really dark. Really strange. There's nothing really close to a single on Low. I listen to it as an album – that's a complete album to me. A conceptual statement."
Nevermind The Low End Theory – it's the hip-hop group's third LP that ranks at the top of Keating's list. "I know that record back and forth," he says. "Up until that point, my interest in hip-hop was exclusively the Beastie Boys and Wreckx-n-Effect. But this felt like an artistic hip-hop record, with great lyrics and stories and really good beat-making again. It just fucking sounds so cool, whatever is going on in this record. It doesn't get much cooler."
Keating cites the New York experimental rock group's third album as their best ever. "It's amazing production, really weird," he says. "I'm always looking for a record that doesn't sound like anything else and this is one of those. It's like gothic Siouxsie and the Banshees meets Middle Eastern funk or something. I think they have a cooler sound than we do."
M.I.A. helped introduce this Angolan group to the States on the 2008 single "Sound of Kuduro," a heady mixture of cheap electronic hooks and ass-shaking soca-style beats. That track is featured on their debut album – although Keating first discovered the band live. "I was like, 'What the hell is this? This is a fucking great band!,'" he recalls of seeing them perform shows in Sweden, Austin, Texas, and Germany. "They're one of those bands where the dudes used to be punk rockers and are like, 'There's no good music anymore.' This doesn't sound like anything I've ever heard. It's rhythmic and there's rapping and in one of their videos, there's dancers and a girl shaking her ass – it's really fun and crazy. And the MC'ing – that's what I love about it. They are MCs in the traditional sense: they're pumping up the parties."