The sudden rise of Yard Act during the pandemic isn’t something I think anybody could have expected. In less than three years, a band of anti-capitalist, sonic experimentalists became major label darlings during a time when the live music industry was non-existent. On their debut full-length The Overload, they’ve managed to craft a distinct sound that’s refreshing enough that any comparison sounds a little farfetched but also recalls most eras of post-punk’s history at one point or another.
Yard Act’s sound is based around spoken word, culturally critical lyrics that make no effort to hide vocalist James Smith’s West Yorkshire accent, backed by post-punk instrumentation. The immediate point of reference for this to most listeners will undoubtedly be Blur, specifically the song “Parklife”. However, it isn’t particularly derivative of the song, Smith’s cadences often sound more similar to something written by The Streets or even John Cooper Clarke, but the concepts are strikingly similar and the influence is undeniable.
While this description may seem as if the band have fit themselves in a niche box, there is still an impressive range of sounds throughout the album. Between the digital African drums and 1980s synthpop chorus of “Payday” to the jazz riffs and Gorillaz-ism of “Land of the Blind” and from the six-minute “Tall Poppies”, to the one minute ‘77 punk tribute “Witness (Can I Get A)”.
The obvious highlight of this sound is the lyrics. Across the album, Smith critiques capitalism and everyday British life through satire and dark humor. “Rich” is the song that stands out most in this respect with its cynical view of the wealthy and mocking of the concept of ethical monetary gain. They also showcase a pension for more traditional storytelling on “Tall Poppies” which tells the life story of an aspiring footballer whose forced to settle and never reaches his dreams.
Interestingly, the near-constant use of spoken word doesn’t ever become grating. The band have a knack for making their instrumentals minimalistic enough for the vocals to always feel natural while also unique. And it makes it so that on the rare occasion when Smith sings traditionally in “Witness” or “The Overload” the album feels more dynamic. However, that is with the exception of the closer “100% Endurance”, which is easily the weakest song on the album. When Smith sings on this specific track he sounds disinterested and incongruous with the rest of the song. If it were more upbeat and energetic then it could be passed off for a punky quirk. But against such a soft, jazzy instrumental it just sounds like he’s unknowingly off-key.
Many of the current successful indie rock and post-punk bands are still harkening back to the genre’s period of mainstream success in the 2000s. Yard Act definitely occupy a similar place in the genre to Black Country, New Road, Mush, or Black Midi in keeping the “post” in post-punk going through rampant experimentalism.
However, Yard Act have songs that are more accessible to a mainstream audience than much of that scene. Specifically, the title track, with its catchy, energetic verses and a more traditionally sung chorus, is geared for mainstream radio play. While it’s refreshing to hear the trial of a new sound on this album, this very aspect makes for many of its largest faults. The dissonant pianos in the outro of “Quarantine in the Sticks”, for example, feel very out of place, and not in a way that compliments the tone of the song. However, that’s par for the course.