Ya Tseen
Photo: Merritt Johnson / Courtesy of Sub Pop Records

Ya Tseen Makes Socially Vital Indie Pop on ‘Indian Yard’

Ya Tseen’s vision on Indian Yard is expansive and yet feels fully realized. It’s hard to imagine an album covering more ground and still striking such a precise balance of cohesion and variety.

Indian Yard
Ya Tseen
Sub Pop
30 April 2021

Indian Yard, the full-length debut from multimodal artist Nicholas Galanin as frontman of Ya Tseen, begins with a burst of growling bass and blissful synths. That sets the tone for a well-balanced and dynamic album of artful, deeply felt indie-pop songs, track after track of catchy beats and vibrant melody crafted with innovative spirit and grounded in emotional truths. This latter quality is perhaps the most definitive aspect of Galanin’s more visual work, which has included thought-provoking works like 2020’s Shadow on the Land and Land Swipe.

Shadow on the Land is an installation seemingly excavating the shadow of Sydney’s monument to Captain Cook as a protest to monuments celebrating colonization. Land Swipe is a hide painted with overlaid maps of the New York subway system and sites of police violence against Black youth. Here, he gives voice to a wide range of experiences, letting loose with verses of love, heartbreak, memory, and calls for justice from his vantage point as a Tlingit and Unangax̂ man.

Along the way, Galanin’s collaborators reflect his wide stylistic palette. The opening track, “Knives”, features his fellow Alaska locals Portugal. The Man, whose flair for artfully catchy music melds well with Galanin’s consistently thoughtful composition work in a tight track that conjures the complexities of desire. Melancholy “Born Into Rain” features the delicate falsetto of Brooklyn-based up-and-comer rum·gold. Similarly sweet are the croons of Nick Hakim, featured on “A Feeling Undefined” alongside Iska Dhaaf in mournful meditation on unspoken love.

“Synthetic Gods” sees Shabazz Palaces and Stas THEE Boss standing with Ya Tseen against systemic injustice and violence over futuristic beats. This same cosmic sense carries over into the synths behind rapper Tay Sean’s energized rhymes on the constantly shifting “Gently to the Sun” (“We march straight into the sun / Because we don’t have no choice / We march straight into the sun / Fists high as a voice / About to break”). The Yupik-language track “Back in That Time” features ensemble Pamyua’s Qacung over crashing cymbal beats, bringing the album to an intense end.

The core band, including Galanin and longtime collaborators Zak D. Wass and OCnotes, makes for a potent combination with or without guests. “Get Yourself Together” sees them in full funk mode, heating up to the sheer sensual lust of “Close the Distance”. More poignant are tracks like “Light the Torch”, where gently plucked guitar arpeggio falls like rain behind solemn promises of solidarity. “I know that you want to leave / I know that it’s hard to see / No one wants to go to war / Now it’s time to light the torch.” Also, there’s “We Just Sit and Smile Here in Silence”, a stripped-down ode to continuous movements against and beyond colonialism. “Raindrops fall in our hand / Fall in our heart / Falling on empire / Need a new start / Here’s to the end”. Nestled in the midst is electrified “At Tugáni,” titled with the Tlingit for gunpowder and fittingly explosive as it grows in ecstatic bliss.

Ya Tseen’s vision on Indian Yard is expansive and yet feels fully realized. It’s hard to imagine an album covering more ground and still striking such a precise balance of cohesion and variety. Galanin has already demonstrated that his work is worth critical attention. Together with his compatriots in Ya Tseen and beyond, he proves his pop sensibilities to be fresh, relevant, and capable of breaking important thematic ground.

RATING 8 / 10
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