- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2008

In the 1980s, songwriting veterans like Peter Gabriel and David Byrne began augmenting their craft with elements of world music. Sounds were borrowed from indigenous cultures and molded into something palatable to Western pop audiences, eventually giving rise to a genre known as “worldbeat.” Championed by everyone from Paul Simon to Mickey Hart, worldbeat promoted a multicultural perspective while fueling some of the decade’s biggest hits.

The worldbeat label is rarely applied to emerging bands these days, and the four members of Yeasayer do not list Mr. Gabriel as a chief influence. Nevertheless, Yeasayer’s genre-bending music is similarly global in scope, from its use of Middle Eastern scales to the prevalence of tribal percussion. What differentiates Yeasayer from its worldbeat ancestors, however, is the band’s use of contemporary tools, including computer gadgetry and looped keyboard patterns. Blended with organic instrumentation and pop-oriented songwriting, the band makes a delightful racket that owes as much to Cape Town as to metropolitan New York.

“People think we’re ‘freak folk’ or something like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, which is totally not what we are,” says frontman Chris Keating. “It’s funny to see the varying degrees in which people interpret your music. I welcome it.”

Yeasayer’s roots date to Mr. Keating’s childhood, when he performed in theater productions and school choirs with classmate Anand Wilder. After internalizing the importance of vocal harmony, the two launched an indie-rock band in high school. Attending different colleges split them apart for several years, but an eventual reunion in New York City found the musicians crafting a new style of music.

With bassist Ira Wolf Tuton and percussionist Luke Fasano rounding out the lineup, Yeasayer began melding barbershop harmonies with pop melodies and experimental sounds. Sitars found their way into the mix. Hand-claps and bongos augmented the standard drum kit. Synthesizers situated the songs in a modern context, while chants and clannish vocals conveyed a neo-tribal aura.

“Brooklyn almost feels like Seattle in 1992,” says Mr. Keating of his band’s current home. “It’s like all the pathetic dredges from the major labels are wanting to sign bands that are coming out of Brooklyn.”

Yeasayer did get signed, but not to a major label’s roster. Rather, the musicians joined forces with Jason Foster, co-founder of Baltimore-based Monitor Records. Impressed with Yeasayer’s homemade recordings, the label executive formed a new company to handle his newest clients.

“We had absolutely no money to do our debut album, but I was fine with that,” Mr. Keating remembers. “Jason had a very good take on the industry and decided to start his own label over the course of the year. He’s remarkable in the way he handles things.”

“All Hour Cymbals,” Yeasayer’s debut album of globetrotting pop/rock, was issued in late 2007. Songs like “2080” and “Sunrise” had already enjoyed a healthy Internet buzz before the album’s release, and Mr. Foster promoted the album in unique ways, eschewing traditional advertising in favor of a grass-roots approach.

“After you witness this collapse of the major label system, it opens up more opportunities for the small businessman,” says Mr. Keating. “It enables you to finagle more deals. We were able to get to Europe seven times this year; previously, all of that would’ve been impossible on such a tiny label.”

It’s been a long 12 months for Yeasayer, whose upcoming shows will mark the band’s final tour for several months. After that, it’ll be time to work on a new record.

“We’re going to rent a house in upstate New York or Connecticut, and we’re going to build a temporary recording studio there,” Mr. Keating says excitedly.

Catch Yeasayer’s final D.C. performance on Wednesday at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. Tickets are $16 in advance and $18 on the day of the show. Purchase them by calling the box office at 202/408-3100.

Another bites the dust

During the latter half of 2005, I served as an intern at Spin magazine. My enlistment coincided with preparations for the publication’s 20th-anniversary party, which gave me ample opportunities to rub shoulders with the artists that graced our magazine’s pages. I interviewed Ric Ocasek, corresponded with Bill Murray and booked limousine rides for our party’s host, Juliette Lewis.

Despite the glamour and glitz of that birthday bash, Spinwas sold to McEvoy Group LLC in early 2006, a sign that all was not well with the magazine’s finances. Who did the McEvoy Group bring aboard to rescue the ailing publication? The former publisher and editor-in-chief of Blender, a healthy-looking music magazine with talent (and advertising profits) to spare.

As reported last week by the Wall Street Journal, Blender’s recent drop in advertising revenues may force its publisher, Alpha Media Group Inc., to turn the company over to creditors. The collapse of a once-thriving mag is another reminder that blogs and Web sites are rapidly emerging as the primary medium for rock ‘n’ roll journalism.

Blender, Spin and the like are fighting a losing battle with Web outlets, where readers can read about a song’s merits and listen to the music themselves. Given that newfound freedom, perhaps it’s understandable that music fanatics are switching their allegiances.

Still, Blender’s potential demise is shaping up as another blow to the traditional music press, which is already smarting from the recent closures of No Depression (America’s premier alt.country rag) and the District’s own Harp magazine.

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