Shangri-La, the 2011 album by the Los Angeles by way of Portland outfit YACHT, is a case where the live experience and the studio recording noticeably diverge. I had the privilege of catching YACHT open for Hot Chip in 2012 at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom for the latter group’s In Our Heads tour, and while each set was impressive in its own right, YACHT pulled off a real feat in matching Hot Chip at every level. This is all the more impressive considering that they were only allotted a performance a third of the headliner’s time. From their ultra-danceable cover of Brigitte Fontaine’s “Le Goudron” to their own apocalyptic jam “Dystopia”, YACHT immediately brought the mood to a crescendo. There was no lapse in between their set and Hot Chip’s; the whole night was a party from start to finish.
However, the same songs from Shangri-La that so enervated the Crystal Ballroom gig manifest less vivaciously on the album itself. Take “Dystopia”, to date one of YACHT’s best-known tunes: it opens with an earworm that doesn’t depreciate in catchiness whatsoever throughout the rest of the track (“The earth, the earth / Is on fire / We don’t have no daughter / Let the motherfucker burn”) all the while showcasing the band’s cheeky sense of humor. As far as post-apocalyptic scenarios go, YACHT’s is far from Hunger Games clichés, and all the better for it. Yet as good as the compositional elements of the track are, “Dystopia” is short-served by its production. Shangri-La‘s sound in this respect is par for the course as far as DFA goes—YACHT was signed to the label at the time. The sparse and unfussy production on “Dystopia” and Shangri-La overall might have worked for a less assertive set of tunes, but the (admittedly tongue-in cheek) fire and brimstone of “Dystopia” calls for a gutsier presentation than it’s given. The skeletal construction of Shangri-La is on-point; its only overarching flaw is that is production doesn’t meet its composition halfway.
For I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler, released by the Downtown label, YACHT swiftly make up for Shangri-La‘s follies. The production by founding member Jona Bechtolt and touring member Rob Kieswetter is punched up considerably, giving the music a pop sheen that glosses nicely without sugarcoating. The hooks, an element YACHT show clear skill with on Shangri-La, are even better this time around. To top it all off, Future is just as likely to get one laughing as it is dancing; after all, it’s not often one hears a love song called “I Wanna Fuck You Til I’m Dead”. In a year that’s already seen superlative electronic pop albums released—most recently, CHVRCHES’ Every Open Eye—Future brings some serious game.
In a somewhat surprising move, well before the release of Future YACHT published a “tracklisticle” on Buzzfeed describing what each of the record’s tracks are about. The ideas behind each explanation are clear and interesting enough, but the annotations aren’t necessary to enjoy the LP. In fact, overall, Future is most compelling at the level of composition—though the lyrics don’t slouch, either. Opening number “Miles and Miles” is the second coming of LCD Soundsystem‘s “Dance Yrself Clean”: a somewhat muted intro laced with bass synth notes explodes three minutes in, transforming into a dance party of the first order. “Miles and Miles’s” second half also tips its hat to the Knife with its usage of the kind of sound warps that lace themselves throughout LPs like Silent Shout. The echoes of that Swedish sibling duo crop up later in Future on “Hologram”, which in its first postchorus utilizes a smattering of clanking electronic sounds that bring Shaking the Habitual to mind.
Evidence of YACHT’s skill with all manner of buttons and knobs is replete throughout Future, yet all the experimentation is in service of the songs themselves. There’s a lot going on in “L.A. Plays Itself”, which could otherwise be a fairly straightforward pop number, but all the elements do coalesce into an infectious whole. Had the slinky, robotic voice-led chorus been written 15 years ago, it’d have been the envy of any major pop artist. (The lyric video to “L.A. Plays Itself”, shot from the perspective of a car driving around Los Angeles that comes across the lyrics on various street signs, might be the Most California Video ever made this side of Phantom Planet and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.) In its second chorus, “I Wanna Fuck You Til I’m Dead” takes Claire L. Evan’s voice and “chipmunks” it, also adding in some sprightly 8-bit keyboard sounds, a move that avoids being tinkering for tinkering’s sake and instead becomes an effective, cutesy juxtaposition to the tune’s crass title. The weaker links on Future aren’t those that veer off into the realm of uninhibited knob-twisting, but rather those that lean on choruses that are too simple for their own good, namely “Hologram”, whose hook simply spells out the title.
Evans was the primary component of YACHT’s killer performance back in 2012, and on Future she proves yet again a charismatic performer. Though YACHT began as a solo project of Bechtolt’s in 2002—Evans joined full-time in 2008—she is no number two player; her personality is central to the band’s success. The conceit of “Ringtone”, a song that gives a whole new dimension to the attention-sucking invasiveness of a ringtone, is one that in less capable hands would be grating. The chorus requires the singer to shout, “RINGTONE! RINGTONE! I’M CALLING, LOOK AT YOUR PHONE!”, while a cacophony of double bass and electronics booms in the background. Evans’ ability to deftly switch between measured delivery in the verses and the nuisance of all-caps in the chorus is commendable, making “Ringtone” one of Future‘s most distinctive moments.
If Future is this catchy in album form, it’s impossible to avoid wondering how these tracks will get even more amplified in a raw setting. With their past outings, YACHT made their talent plenty apparent, even when the music didn’t so convincingly articulate it. By contrast, Future finds YACHT alive in a whole new way, with the group crafting not only some of the best pop of their careers, but of 2015 as a whole. YACHT may have thought once upon a time that the future would have been cooler, but by any metric, the future they’re in now is pretty damn excellent.
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