If By Yes is the product of two major-label bands that were also-rans in the great 1990s alternative rock sweepstakes. Vocalist Petra Haden was a member of That Dog (more properly known as that dog.) and had a minor career afterwards by covering The Who Sell Out in its entirety, right down to its fake commericals. Keyboardist Yuka Honda, on the other hand, was a member of Cibo Matto, a New York Japanese girl pop duo that laid down funk samples and hip-hop rhymes over bizarre stream-of-thought lyrics like “Shut up and eat! You know my love is sweet!” (Honda used to date Sean Lennon, son of John and Yoko Ono, who owns the recording label If By Yes are on and even penned the press release that accompanied this record.) During their tenures in their respective bands, Haden and Honda wound up meeting and quickly became friends, but it wasn’t until 2002, well after both bands imploded, that the pair started writing together. If By Yes’ debut album, Salt on Sea Glass, took about eight years to cook up; owing to the fact that Haden lived on the west coast and Honda lived on the east, the duo would write songs a la The Postal Service by e-mail or whenever the two could synchronize their schedules and actually meet in person. For that reason, Salt on Sea Glass, which is augmented by Yuko Araki on drums and Hirotaka “Shimmy” Shimizu on guitar – both from the Japanese band Cornelius – sounds a bit of a collage of fairly different musical styles and genres, though the band is mired mostly in dream-pop sonics. In a way, listening to Salt on Sea Glass is a little like flipping through the pages of a coffee table book on interior design, with its glossy production values and fashionable sense of melody. However, with a few exceptions, it hangs together remarkably well in its overall catchy sweetness and earnestness, prompting this writer to wonder if the group can actually hang out more often to create their brand of breathtaking music.
Opening track “You Feel Right”, presented here as a remix by Keigo “Cornelius” Oyamada, is slick and has a deep, jazzy soul feel with its Rhodes piano and use of vibes, reminiscent of a late period Steely Dan song. There’s a touch of the avant-garde with its Ono-esque soaring background vocals, and the song absolutely shimmers with the bright intensity of a million cars break-lights lit up in a time-exposed photo. It’s a majestic track that is pure pop, and, in a fair and perfect world, it would be a massive radio hit with its throbbing sense of passion and recollection of ‘70s AM radio gems. What follows, though, is a bit of a right turn into Middle Eastern territory through the sitar-tinged “Eliza”, which features lyrics and guest vocals by none other than ex-Talking Heads frontman David Byrne – not to speak of steel guitar work provided by Wilco’s Nels Cline. Coming after the polished “You Feel Right”, the song feels like ice water thrown into your face with its experimental, waltz-like underpinnings. In fact, “Eliza” is like an episode of your favourite sitcom with Very Special Guests, and seems to be here to prop up some hipster credibility. (“Look at us! We’re recording with David Byrne and Nels Cline! Aren’t we cool?”) By far, “Eliza” is the worst track on Salt on Sea Glass as it pulls away from the album’s alterna-pop cadence, and it might have been better served being a bonus track or B-side. It really interrupts the flow of the record, even in its peg as the No. 2 track, and the one-two punch of “You Feel Right” and “Eliza” seems to work against the rest of the album in that they’re so stylistically different from the remainder of the LP – even though “You Feel Right” is a bit of a stunner.
From there, though, the album settles down into a fairly stable pattern of serviceable, dreamy alternative pop that is a bit reminiscent of ‘90s electronic super-group Garbage – Haden even sounds a little bit like Shirley Manson in some of the songs that make up the bulk of the record. “Three as Four” boasts a memorable chorus that floats by languorously on the strength of Haden’s lilting vocals as well as chiming musical-box guitars in its end section. The song rubs shoulders somewhat thematically with Garbage’s “Only Happy When It Rains” with the opening lines “I read you like the weather / Umbrellas folding back / Nothing to do”. “Imagino”, which the press notes claim is the song that more or less coalesced the sound of If By Yes, is a soft, lush ballad strengthened by the presence of a mournful, moody saxophone. “Still Breathing”, another track given the remix treatment by Oyamada, is another laid-back stab at guitar pop that’s Spartan in its arrangement, Haden’s voice gasping breathlessly against wound-up percussion and a series of broken chords, save for bits and pieces of backwards tape trickery at key moments. That’s followed by the ghostly and haunting low-key “In My Dreams”, which glides by on a bossa nova beat during its verses and the re-emergence of a solitary saxophone during the second chorus. “Shadow Blind” is a lovely composition of New York dream pop, buoyed by a chorus that is absolutely funky, bleeding into “You’re Something Else”, a sultry and soulful track of glitch-pop which feels like it could be the theme song for a James Bond flick. “Out of View” features some of Haden’s most earnest lyrics on the record, and, when she girlishly sings “I see my house / I see my bus stop / Rising, rising, with the heat / From pavement”, you just want to reach out, grab her by the cheeks, and gently squeeze them. The country-tinged “Lightening in Your Eyes”, with its gently brushed drums, is heavenly, though it is perhaps the most laissez-faire and least memorable thing to be found here (save for “Eliza”), with a clarinet mournfully playing against some fuzzed-out guitars in the solo section. Finally, “Adrift” is simply a panoramic, cinematic mood piece in which Haden moans, whoops, and hums, again recalling the formless work of Ono, but the track only functions as a prelude to a six-minute, unlisted bonus song, introduced by the sound of water dripping and a depressed piano plucking out a series of notes before transmuting itself into a scorching rock ditty that seems to be just hanging out idiosyncratically on an album full of otherwise pop standards.
Salt on Sea Glass is a bit like a puzzle in that most of its pieces interlock well together, save for the first two tracks on the record, which seem to be, respectably, a grab for radio airplay and an effort to drum up some authority with the elite of the New York post-punk scene. However, the album, for all of its long-distance origins, is a deeply affecting and dreamy piece of modern pop. Here, Haden emerges as a fully capable singer who pulls you in with her wistful and pensive prowess, and Honda serves as a remarkably restrained foil with her keyboard compositions. It may be true that That Dog and Cibo Matto only had limited commercial success and critical acclaim, but the sounds of Salt on Sea Glass indicate that they’ve both matured and outgrown the sound of their previous incarnations. If they can only keep the long-distance relationship alive, one hopes to hear more from If By Yes as they further refine and determine the compass of their sweet, sticky retro sounds.