Release Date: Jun 21, 2011
Record label: DFA
Genre(s): Electronic, Pop/Rock
Following the artistic breakthrough of 2009's See Mystery Lights, Yacht's second album as a duo (and second outing for DFA Records) continues to mine a fruitful blend of new wave, dance-punk, and playful electro-pop, this time with a slightly tighter, poppier focus. Effectively a stylistic extension of its predecessor -- which is certainly nothing to complain about -- Shangri-La benefits from a marginally more song-oriented, vocal-centered approach, informed by the loose lyrical theme suggested by the title. As laid out in songs like the opening diptych of "Utopia" and "Dystopia" (also issued as two sides of a 7" single prior to the album's release), the basic position here is that all the potential for paradise (or hell) exists right here on Earth, and lies within us: "there's nothing in the future, it's up to us to build utopia.
What might one have to say On the Best State of an Album and on the YACHT Album of Utopia? Firstly, we can confound that solemn opening by noting that Shangri-La is a seriously funky work, combining irresistible indie tendencies and synth-electronica beats with intellectual smarts in a way that could give a whole new meaning to the term “intelligent dance music. ” I was particularly taken with the zany lyrics, which, while they occasionally fall a little flat, demonstrate a thoughtfulness and a breadth of engagement (art, politics, emotion) that mark them apart from their contemporaries. We are treated to Latin mottoes (et in arcadia ego) and to references from John Donne that are cunningly linked in to the album’s themes of ecotopia and global apocalypse.
No one likes a po-faced electronic band. Okay, quite a few people like po-faced electronic bands... but you have to wonder where Kraftwerk would be without the sense of humour that dared them to write a 23 minute ode to a stretch of concrete. Could Boards Of Canada have endeared themselves to so many if they hadn’t randomly inserted the word “orange” at various junctions in ‘Aquarius’? Who would bother listening to Hot Chip without their lamentable taste in knitwear? YACHT understand this.
Ever since I watched the weeklong special on The History Channel about how the world is scheduled to end in 2012, part of me has been living my life with that expiration date in mind. Hundreds of dead birds falling from the sky… Thousands of fish washing up on the shore… Sarah Palin… All signs point to looming apocalypse. As a result, my pseudo-subconscious attitude for the past year or so has been something like, “Well, the universe may implode soon, so I’m gonna go to another music festival now, and worry about finding a real job after December 2012.
Shangri-La is everything it offers to be, its very own Shangri-La: that might seem like a pretty glowing way of opening a review, but frankly it's a signal that what we have here is a record which, on the one hand is so very hopeful and encouraging, but on the other proves to offer a somewhat transient and false beauty. Like Hilton’s Lost Horizon, the book that spawned the myth, it offers something that it simply can’t deliver – YACHT’s Shangri-La is a wonderful idea that never quite realizes itself. The group take the time over the course of the record to deliberate and conclude their opinions on the titular subject, ensuring that this remains very much a concept driven album as well as one that gives room for ostentation of their other personal philosophies along the way.
Anthem of the Trinity, YACHT’s mixtape of the influences behind their 2008 album See Mystery Lights, drew from music by Nirvana, Outkast, Bad Brains, Snoop Dogg, Terry Riley, Talking Heads, Joy Division, B-52s, LCD Soundsystem, and others. That seemed like a motley crew but made sense—in a way you could hear all of that in the album. I imagine a list of the influences behind their new album Shangri-La wouldn’t be radically different, because the album doesn’t sound radically different.
YACHT's second album as a duo, their fifth overall, fuses a utopian concept with the brand of nervy, spastic electro-funk we've come to expect from the DFA label. As on 2009's See Mystery Lights, Portland laptop maestro Jona Bechtolt (formerly of the Blow) and singer Claire L. Evans enjoy their smoothest sailing when they fully submit to sweaty euphoria; Shangri-La offers more than enough frantic beats, fidgety bass lines, spiky guitar leads, soaring piano riffs, delirious vocal harmonies, and, yes, cowbells to fit in on any house-party playlist.
At about the point during “Paradise Engineering” when Claire Evans sings (speaks) that “the world’s last unpleasant experience will be a precisely datable event,” followed by a series of new-age platitudes and left-wing hand-wringing, I start to feel physically ill while thinking of those perfectly manufactured hipster faces. The lyrics get to be THAT bad on YACHT’s new album Shangri-La. I mean, the goddam song is called “Paradise Engineering” for Christ’s sake.
The fifth album from Yacht (Young Americans Challenging High Technology – those Americans being Jona Bechtolt and Claire L Evans) is a hectic, high-impact concept album about a dysfunctional world evolving towards some kind of hyper-enlightened dance-party paradise, complete with lots of talk about cosmic communion and the "kinetic potential" within us all. The sound of this great awakening is a suitably starry-eyed riot of colourful synths, rubbery basslines and playground-pop vocals – opener Utopia's warp-speed punk-funk gets things off to a hurtling start; between here and the melodious toy-town piano closer Shangri-La lies plenty more ear-bashingly catchy disco-pop and a couple of moody mini-epics for good measure. It's hit-and-miss stuff, exhausting as often as it is exciting, and perhaps never quite as out-there as you might expect.
YACHT gets heavier on Shangri-La, a descent into dance-floor philosophizing that threatens their otherwise polished groove. Unsatisfied with delivering pure pop missives, the group delves into a weird examination of the notion of “paradise,” delivering a flat message in a style that seems wedged between tongue-in-cheek irony and deadly seriousness. As with the similar themes of 2009’s superior See Mystery Lights, the album contains a strong musical presence threatened by unnecessary theological posturing, a strange fixation that comes off as bland and misguided.
Wow, [a]Yacht[/a] are annoying. Wafty electro hippies with a penchant for [a]MGMT[/a]-style sci-fi whimsy, they describe themselves as “a band, a belief system and a business”, and their blog is full of such new-age cockwaffle as, “We consider [a]Yacht[/a] to be an evolutionary entity that grows constantly while remaining true to its origins, spirit and message. ” Their fifth album has an equally gaseous theme – something about building a planetary utopia in our minds, dude.
A concept album designed for the dancefloor, which no listener needs a degree to unravel. Jen Long 2011 The concept album can be a dangerous format to contemplate. Push it too far and songs become nothing more than templates hungrily awaiting exposition. Weave the strings too loose, though, and your work can fall into a confusing mess of ideas.YACHT has never been a band shy on concepts.