For the passionate music fan, few things are more enjoyable than discovering a “new” band or performer that just hits on all levels. Music reviewers are not immune to this; we all begin as fans and then try to go beyond that to provide deeper insight into the works that engage us, but that pure joy in discovery can’t be lost, even if it must be occasionally muted. With their latest release Human Question, the Yawpers have cut right through my own critical defenses and tapped into the raw fan who still lives in my heart. I spend a lot of time analyzing records, but this is one that I’ve just spent the past couple weeks enjoying: playing loud, singing along, and telling friends “You gotta check this out.”
For all the apocalyptic proclamations that rock music is dead or no longer matters, the on-the-ground reality is that there is so much exciting, interesting, and just plain alive rock and roll happening in America right now that it’s still possible to have the experience I’ve just had. I’m someone who actively seeks out new music, who reads reviews to find new (to me) performers, who picks records to review from bands I’ve never heard of but am curious about, and for all that, I hadn’t previously heard the Yawpers. I’d heard of them, but there’s just so much good or interesting stuff to wade through that I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to check them out. Having done so by signing up to review Human Question, all I want to do is hear more from them.
Turns out the Denver trio of Nate Cook, Jesse Parmet, and new drummer Alex Koshak has been at this for most of the current decade, and this is their fourth album (where the hell have I been?) and third for Bloodshot Records. 2017’s Boy in a Well was a concept record that was particularly well-received by critics and fans and which showed the band’s growth. Human Question is a different kind of beast, a direct assault on the listener that demands attention. This is a record made for lifelong FM-radio listeners, because its sounds evoke snatches of Led Zeppelin, the Who, Aerosmith, Black Crowes, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, R.E.M., Green Day, and even U2 in the masterful kind of way wherein these moments of familiarity tease and pass while building into a whole that is undeniably unique. “Power trio” can be a fraught term in pop music, evoking the perpetual myth-building of Cream, the progressive excess of Rush, or the sterile pop precision of the Police, but the Yawpers bring true power to the term. They can sound like anything or anyone they want at any given moment yet never lose their identity.
Human Question opens with the loping, adrenalized “Child of Mercy”, and it sets the album’s raw but welcoming tone. “Please show me something I can believe in,” Cook sings, revealing simultaneous anger and vulnerability that lies at the heart of each of the album’s ten songs. This is rock music as catharsis, and it’s contagious as hell. “I’ve taken all the medicine but I’ve still got your disease,” he sings in “Dancing on My Knees” before admitting, “It wasn’t what I asked for / But it’s exactly what I need.” The psychedelic-tinged “Human Question” contemplates the “beauty of desperation” amidst its questions of the meaning of life or living before concluding “every effigy fades”.
Two of the album’s highlights come towards the end. Parmet’s thunderous guitar overtakes Cook’s bluesy noodling in the opening of “Forgiveness Through Pain”, driven maddeningly forward by Koshak’s drums and Cook’s white-boy jive vocals (the best I’ve heard this side of Steven Tyler at his peak). The band immediately shifts into the Byrdsian “Can’t Wait” which trades the Red Hot Chilli Pepper riffs of the previous song for a jangling folk-rock reminiscent of the dBs and R.E.M. “I’ve been lookin’ for some comfort, but in this world it’s escapin’ me,” Cook sings while Parmet offers the refrain, “I can’t wait.” It’s a sweet song of longing, and when Cook takes over the refrain in a yearning screech, he unlocks a wave of emotion in a vocal performance that evokes references that span decades.
There’s not a stale track in the album’s pedal-to-the-metal 38 minutes. Human Question is an album that functions as a whole, passing fast but leaving ample impression in its wake. It demands the listener hit repeat in search of that particular riff or impressive run that sped by only to reveal a new trick or tease that hadn’t been noticed before. The Yawpers are a great American rock and roll band and Human Question is one of this year’s most accomplished releases.