Uncanny Groovingby Laura Flierl
Yeasayer’s vigorous mix of dance-inspired electronica and indie guitar-rock, presented live at Berlin’s Postbahnhof on March 10, was much needed in the arctic wastes of a city slowly crawling out of a long, arduous winter. Even if only for one night, the Brooklyn-based band lifted the audience’s depressed winter souls with their rousing harmonies and tropicool beats, before leaving the Berliners to samba back through icy streets to their homes.
Postbahnhof is a strange location to offer such warm redemption. Despite its being in the “center” of the city, it feels like some lonesome industrial hinterland. Surrounded by train tracks stretching far into the distance, and empty car-parks where the occasional urban fox might be spotted snooping around, the area seems devoid of any human life—a nocturnal concrete desert, with mystery trains swooping through from West to East. The venue itself was actually built in 1907; it was a buzzing railway post station in the East of Berlin that fell to pieces during WWII. In recent years, the municipal authorities have put a lot of effort and money into refurbishing the enormous three-thousand-square-meter building into a cultural event space, because of its proximity to the former borderline between GDR Berlin and the city’s Western side. Yet the actual historical architecture, consisting of two massive brick cargo halls, still retains its shadowy, in-between identity. Venturing through the large empty spaces on the way to Postbahnhof always leaves one with an eerie feeling, and on this occasion the question, Am I the only one here? Isn’t there supposed to be a gig tonight? But arriving at the venue, which was buzzing with people, laid these concerns to rest.
The otherworldly vibe of the location turned out to be a perfect fit for the occasion. Yeasayer has always manifested a postmodern awareness toward musical styles, where crossing borders and liberally mixing musical traditions has become central to their sound. Yeasayer may place their music’s electronic production front and center, but the group seems keenly informed by a wide variety of influences. Eighties disco musicians’ fondness for the Vocoder was very much in evidence in Chris Keating’s vocals on the set opener, “The Children” (from the group’s new release, Odd Blood). This track, with its dehumanized vox and sci-fi robocop textures, clanked into the floppy, insistent breakbeat of “Rome,” the set’s second number, also from Odd Blood. This pair of spooky tunes gave you the feeling you were at the sort of rave that the kids from the Addams Family might go to. You almost expected to turn around and see the zombie dancers from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video gettin’ it on behind you.
Then, some familiar noises from the intro of the glorious, golden “Wait for the Summer” began to emerge from the PA, and the future classic from Yeasayer’s much-loved debut All Hour Cymbals sprang into life. The carnivalesque freak show of “Rome” evaporated in Anand Wilder’s full-blown harmonies, and the intricate, clapping percussion accompaniment got everyone jumping into the tune’s two-step breaks. “Wait for the Summer” is not totally dissimilar to the kind of sound that Seattle’s woodland wanderers Fleet Foxes create, but Yeasayer is dancing it out into psychedelic space. Still, even within the electric psychedelica you can pick out sounds reminiscent of traditional folk dances; in the miniature percussive breakdowns within the melody you can imagine people dancing to an old-time Greek polka on a beach in the Mediterranean, long before electronic keyboards had even been conceived.
Another highlight of the evening, and of Odd Blood itself, was Yeasayer’s performance of the track “O.N.E.” Wilder’s glistening voice emerged to take the lead vocal over this track’s pure, deep melodies. The song seems to have obvious roots in 80s pop and dance fashions. Some critics have even made comparisons to such not-so-modish wonders as Boy George’s Culture Club. Nevertheless, giving Wilder’s voice more prominence this time around is no bad thing. The imagination in Yeasayer’s songwriting is peerless, and their unique take on creating music proves them to be one of the most important bands in the contemporary independent scene. Hidden in an old post warehouse somewhere in the German capital, performing in front of a flashing wall of pink and green disco lights, the band’s new tunes were instantly familiar but strangely ungraspable. The epic woo-ing and multi-part choral harmonies of “Madder Red” seemed to cascade out of the venue into blue night skies, chanting anthemically over layers of drums and ethereal synthesizers. At points it felt like we were hearing a new mutation of old tribal music, electronically heralding nature’s spirits into the fray. Yeasayer is a band for in-between spaces, fusing the ancient with the postmodern, and giving audiences an uncanny but very special experience before they leave the venue to return home, still glowing in the dark from the music they have just experienced.
Laura Flierl is a freelance writer based in Berlin.