The Boat People: yesyesyesyesyes

[14 December 2005]

By Dan Raper

Yes, there’s something romantic about this: if you want to hear this new Brisbane band, the Boat People—at least properly, all the way through their debut yesyesyesyesyes—you’ll probably need to order the actual CD and get it shipped from Australia. Big effort, right, for those of us more used to immediate gratification—click/right-click, download, download, listen. But hey, I’m all for it, and the reason is this: give yourself two weeks of reading about a band, give yourself the time to digest what you think they’re going to sound like, time to think about the little songs you haven’t heard, the non-singles that make a record great (yeah, it’s different for everyone, but for the sake of completeness, “Exit Music” off OK Computer—OK, unfair example… then, “Neighborhood #3” off Funeral)—the two weeks of anticipation. It’s the old feeling you had in middle school, waiting for the new Ben Folds Five, maybe, after hearing the single on the radio…. So, is the debut album from this band you haven’t heard of worth those two weeks of baited breath? Sadly, there’s just enough material that fails to live up to expectations that, despite superlative local press, you might want to stick with the free mp3s that are floating out there on the internet.

Yes, they’ve got the non-pretentious, upward-looking pure guitar pop thing down; the gentle wit, the optimistic floating melodies, but without the jangly (real-world/disappointed) edge of the Shins. Happy-man pop with brains? Well, almost. They fall just flat at the last moment with some astonishingly inane lyrics. Are they being ironic? Possibly, but I’d argue that with lyrics like this:

“Everything comes out exactly the way I mean
but people tend to take it sarcastic and say I’m being insincere
and when they play a trick on me I take it very serious
until they say they were joking (if they were joking…)”

...then it doesn’t matter. We’ve heard enough. And that in a song called “Irony”—it is ironic, surely, just not in the way the band intends. If they were masked by the really interesting instrumental arrangements that we do get during some of these songs, it could be all right; but almost willfully, it seems, the harmony falls away and we hear these inexplicable lyrics just a few too many times over the course of the twelve songs. “America will sink into the sea”… Uh, huh?

Yes, they’ve got some sweet songs. “Tell Someone Who Cares”, the first song off the album and the single that got them discovered in Australia, finds a perfect balance between youthful optimism, the melancholy of lost opportunities, and cynicism with the whole process and wraps it all up in a tightly-arranged guitar sound, with an incredibly catchy chorus. But why does it sound so familiar? The guitars at the beginning are lifted straight from Bends-era Radiohead—“My Iron Lung”, to be exact. The second single, “Clean”, was produced by Magoo, member of the sonically adventurous, pop/pop-punk/electronic chameleons Regurgitator (who recorded the whole of their latest album in a giant plastic bubble suspended above Federation Square in Melbourne), and he gives it a bit of an unexpected twist. The opening percussion is quietly menacing, and the sound builds and becomes more complex, until the chorus hits us, and… it’s softer, with crooned, descending thirds saying “Do you need this to breathe / More than oxygen?”. That inversion of expectations makes the song memorable, a great little guitar-pop number.

Yes, one final note about the songs. They’ve got a great habit of hovering a third above the tonic; you know they’re going to get down there, but they stretch you out, hold you and then, finally, drop back into key. It’s a nice effect, and best illustrated in the pop gem “Central Station”, yesyesyesyesyes‘s “Neighborhood #3”: ‘What would it take to put a smile on the face/ Of every miserable and bitter person/ Walking down the steps of Central Station”. It’s “Station” before you get there… but it’s worth it. It’s worth it.

Yes, there are a few other good songs, too—“Unsettle My Heart”, “She’s a Good Soul”—but the filler (“Possum Magic”), the crazy/throwaway lyric-work (“Irony”, “Sink Into the Sea”), and the influence-aping quiet despair (“Picturesque”) just dilute the whole effect. I think I know what’s going on here. The guys are, what, 20 years old? They’re young, still finding their voice, while wearing their influences (Radiohead, Crowded House, the Strokes, even) a bit too prominently on their sleeves. They’ve got potential, and something about their wide-eyed optimism is really refreshing; they just need to work out what their tone/voice/style is, and make their musical ideas their own, before anyone here in America is likely to say yes back to them.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/boatpeople-yesyes/