by Matt Meade
A lot of bands (Destroyer, Ducktails, Bon Iver for that last track on their 2011 record) think it’s cool to sound like the 80s. They are wrong. There is nothing cool about the gauzy, neutered studio sounds of that era. There is nothing cool about the glowing sheen lacquered onto bands like Genesis, Foreigner, and Stevie Winwood.
The songs on yesper’s 2014 release senses sensei are so shimmery and dry that I kept expecting a Steely Dan sax solo to pop up at any moment. There is even a song with a Phil Collins-esque song-long lyrical conceit about making contact through a radio. 1987 much?
Somehow, though, yesper gets away with it (just like he gets away with creating a portmanteau of “yes” and “whisper” to form the name of his one man project; just like he gets away with doing that thing where everything is lower case including the name of the record, the songs, and the band). There is something post-police Sting about it all, but not in a bad way; in a really soothing and earnest way. yesper has produced a tight, compact record that exists in that vulnerable space that doesn’t know it is being corny, but is just honest and sincere enough to be interesting and compelling. Somehow, despite the flaws, it works.
The songs are short and compact, getting in and getting back out on each track, the longest one being a luxurious length of 3:37. He doesn’t linger after he paints you the picture. “You know what this is,” he seems to be saying. “You get what I am doing. You know that I am good at it.”
Just like on his 2012 record Cannibal King, the character of the recording venue is reflected in the sound of the record. Whereas Cannibal King was recorded in an “empty storefront in downtown Seattle,” this one was recorded in “empty penthouses of an unfinished high-rise above downtown Seattle.” It shows. The cool quiet of it all. The lonely honesty.
Unfortunately there is none of the bizarre lyrical territory explored on 2012’s Cannibal King, though yesper is still fussing over the same problems of how to exist as a fragile-hearted guy in a cold, uncaring, and too technologically advanced society. He lets the arrangements and the above-average-for-this-type-of-record guitar playing come to the forefront, relegating the lyrics to a more perfunctory role. There also seems also to be a new commitment to percussion, employing a different percussion instrument for each song, a woodblock instead of a kick drum for the Decemberist’s-esque “butcher’s boy,” the maracas keeping the ethereal “honest men” tethered to the earth. There are clacks and bangs, claps and shakes layered in, stripped down and solid, and it all helps to craft a stage for the scratchy, often melodramatic interplay of vocals and guitar.
Like I said, not everything works. “moving parts” is ponderous and even its tasteful guitar-solo outro can’t save it from being unnecessarily drab. The backing vocals on “honest men,” are a bit monochromatic and they serve as some kind of literal echo-chamber where the ooh and aahs are yespered by yesper himself. The practice of harmonizing to your own vocals is common and probably done for practical and economic reasons but it doesn’t lessen the effect of these “back-up singers” acting as some kind of naked self-affirmations. It’s a little like watching a fat guy look in the mirror, comb his hair back and tell himself, “Yup. I look like Ryan Reynolds.”
The record is bookended though by its two most devastatingly successful tracks. “vulgar mouth,” has the most character of all his songs and it opens the record. It uses the same descending bent note throughout to underscore the notion of drifting away on a wave of self-doubt. It smartly hints at the way words fail during courtship and flirtation and evokes the delicious and sexy moments in between the public facade of a date and the end point that is the bedroom. “brightest minds,” recalls the spiraling intro of the titular track on “cannibal king,” and it serves as almost a thesis statement for yesper’s work. It is about the inability to communicate despite the wealth of avenues for expression. The theme of failing to communicate is one to which yesper returns over and over and one that seems comes across as honest coming from this artist. Most of his work is about what he calls “inarticulate bastards of men.”
If nothing else, yesper can be confident that he at least got that across. What else can you call a record that manages to communicate the failure to communicate but a success?