Last month, the lady and I took our unborn child down to Neumos Crystal Ball reading room to catch a performance by psychedelic upstarts, Tame Impala (read review here). Seeing as the Australian group has gained attention after being hand-picked as openers by more established headliners, themselves, we made sure to get to the show early enough to catch their own openers and moved up towards the front.
YUCK is a 4-piece out of London, half of which consists of Daniel Blumberg (vox/guitar) and Max Bloom (guitar), both formerly of the UK‘s teenage indie-pop darlings, Cajun Dance Party. With Bloom playing bass and Blumberg supplying the vocals, their former group went on to sign to XL recordings, have their debut album produced by SUEDE‘s Bernard Butler, and reign in a good amount of critical praise. Apparently, Thom Yorke was in the mix there somewhere as well, but… basically, there was a solid amount of hype and people were eating it up. They were hailed by critics, made a run of some festival dates, and then, more or less, disappeared. While guitarist/founder, Robbie Stern was known as the primary songwriter in Cajun Dance Party, YUCK shows Blumberg and Bloom picking up their own guitars, writing their own tracks, and beginning to reel in just as much hype as their previous project.
They entered the stage with a fairly classic set-up: a drummer, a bassist, and 2-guitarists; one of which doubles as lead vocalist. Also classic is the employment of female, Mariko Doi on bass duties. Without taking anything away from her basic skills as a musician, a female bassist seems all too fitting for the quartet’s throwback Indie-Rock leanings. Of course, the only person that I would ever feel 100% comfortable with accusing as being methodical and completely obsessed with strictly “collaborating” -and I use that term loosely- with female bassists, is Billy Corgan. However, when YUCK draws so blatantly from the sound of such predecessors as Sonic Youth and the Pixies, the only real surprise is that the Japanese bassist’s first name isn’t “Kim” and that she wasn’t really in the mix exchanging vocals with frontman, Blumberg. Instead, she mostly just floated around on the right side of the stage like a member of the backing band in a Robert Palmer video. She was sporting a denim jacket with a Leather Tuscadero-style neckerchief and had bluntly chopped bangs on her Johnny Ramone hairdo. Right next to her, on the furthest end of the stage, was Bloom, bearded and resembling James Mercer‘s lanky younger brother. He appeared to be wearing a button up Jean shirt. Standing in front of us on the opposite side of the stage was Blumberg with a wild hairdo that was part Simply Red and part young Dylan. Whether by design or coincidence, he was also wearing denim, but his shirt looked a little bit more like it was of the Cool Hand Luke chain gang variety. Further adding to his dangerous “plays-by-his-own-rules” appearance, was a dangly cross earring in his left ear. Come to think of it, he may have modeled his hair and looks on a Patrick Dempsey styled-up for popularity in Can’t Buy Me Love, a film that was easily released a full 4 years before the vocalist was even conceived. Dead center stage was drummer, Jonny Rogoff. He was wearing plaid (not denim) and had what is often referred to as a “Jew fro“. As the story goes, Blumberg was first introduced to the New Jersey drummer while in the Israeli desert on a kibbutz.
I recognized YUCK‘s name from the countless press releases that we’ve received and am already well aware that they have been consistently garnering very solid reviews for their debut release. The album was only just dropped in February, but buzz spreads incredibly fast in this digital age and Blumberg didn’t have the swagger of someone that was opening a show. He’d experienced being the center of critical, media hype with Cajun Dance Party, so that likely feeds into his projected confidence, but I’m also willing to bet that being sufficiently rehearsed plays an equal part. From the first track that they knocked out, it was clear that they were competent musicians that were very well prepared. My honest and first reaction fell somewhere between, “Hey, this is alright!” and “Cool, these guys aren’t terrible.” I was standing on the floor amongst the all-ages crowd and something about the vibe in the place screamed “All-Ages“. What that vibe is exactly, is hard to say, but you know it when you feel it. Bloom tried to encourage the folks up in the balcony to come down and someone responded with the explanation that they weren’t allowed to bring their drinks onto the floor. When the guitarist said that he couldn’t hear him, but that it didn’t matter, Blumberg filled him in. “He said, ‘We’re on Alcohol! I need a drink!‘ Then he grabbed a banana and spoke towards the balcony suggesting that they eat fruit, while further explaining that, since they weren’t allowed to drink on stage, the band brought food, instead. There wasn’t a ton of banter, so a little quip like this stood out. Plus, it was the first time that I really noticed the British accent through what is often a very American sound. For the most part, they just tore through the strategically distorted indie-rock tracks that make up their polished self-titled release. Rogoff supplied a heavy, solid backbeat while the guitar duo floated and wrapped guitar lines around Doi‘s bass grooves like wiry streams beamed from a proton pack. They are undeniably good at what they do, but the main question is about what exactly it is that they do.
While YUCK brought a welcomed sigh of relief as a fully capable opener that could -and most certainly will- headline well attended tours of their own, I shouldn’t find any conflict with missing any those shows. Not unlike TAME IMPALA, this 4-piece has created only a limited amount of material, thus far. I wasn’t as well versed in their album prior to the performance as I am now, so my impression that their live routine varies only minimally to that of the recorded versions, may not be entirely accurate. That being said, this is equally an album review as it is one of their show, because I’m basically judging the same material. The lead-off track to their full-length is a song called “Get Away” and it sounds a hell of a lot like a Pixies track. That is, of course, until it sounds more like a Breeders track. It’s unmistakable and, most definitely, intentional. The distortion drops out into a stripped down rhythm, complete with Kim Deal bass line/tone before the guitar comes back in with a distorted pluck, growing into a sonic wall of fuzz. The trick to these guys is that they don’t play off the Pixies angle very long. In fact, that comparison doesn’t seem to be made very often at all in other reviews that I’ve seen. Instead, YUCK chooses to bounce around, consistently sampling from groups like Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, and Teenage Fanclub – comparisons that are being made every time (who am I to break the streak?). I feel that a lot of YUCK‘s praise doesn’t come despite the amount of influences that they draw from, but because of them. Instead of imitating one distinct band’s sound, they hop around enough to confuse everyone and come across as well-studied young musicians. For me, however, it comes across as a compilation CD from SPIN magazine or a local Alternative station in the early 90s. There’s a little Cure in there, some heavy tracks, some mellower efforts… just enough to feign variety and a sense of taste, but, when the third song on the album, “Shook Down“, sounds like a cross between WHAM!‘s “Last Christmans” and a B-Side to Toad the Wet Sprocket‘s “Walk on the Ocean“, I have to question how discriminating and focused their tastes really are, or if they are just obsessed with an idea and novelty of a rough time period. For a slightly more recent flavor, there are even songs with tinges of Foo Fighters (“Holing Out”) and THE SHINS (“Suicide Policeman”). Granted, The Shins could be accurately accused of blatantly swiping vocal elements from Morrissey and The Smiths at times, but Blumberg doesn’t sound as much like his fellow Englishmen as much as he resembles Mercer resembling Morrissey. This curious aspect actually brings me to my next point; while many of the predecessors that YUCK “borrow” from may have also borrowed quite obviously from their own predecessors in the past, most of them have still created and retained unique and noticeable voices of their own. I’m not entirely convinced that YUCK is managing to accomplish that same feat for themselves.
Beyond simple song selection, YUCK‘s live set parallels that of their album in areas of consistency and momentum. In listening to their CD, I had an enthusiastic and hopeful feeling during the first track, but the interest began to trail off as the album continued. Generally, I would expect myself to feel more and more engaged in a release that drew me in so quickly, or to have it grow on me with each additional listen, but I have found YUCK‘s music to become increasingly boring and that it burns out quickly. They may grab from a number of sources, but the end result doesn’t feel varied at all. Instead, it winds up creating a blanket of processed, almost ironically over-produced, generic late-80s to mid-90s radio cuts. After seeing them live, my girlfriend claimed that too much of it sounded super streamlined, along the lines of acts like Better Than Ezra, which dominated Nineties radio stations with corporate “alternative” tracks. I disagreed with her, explaining that they were appropriating and riding out more of a Dinosaur Jr. indie guitar rock vibe. However, after listening to the album a few times, I realize that she was actually right. Admittedly, the quartet incorporates elements of Shoegaze, Indie, and Noise rock, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say that they “experiment” with those elements. Instead, they swipe them outright and do little to advance them or to create a unique interpretation in any way. They deliver somewhat of an indie rock flavor, but with a lingering and decidedly corporate-pop aftertaste.
I also acknowledge that my use of comparisons to bands like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and Teenage Fanclub are far from original comparisons and that it might seem like a lazy move on my part to draw them, but I have to wonder how difficult it is to simulate music from another time period or why I should break my skull in an effort to come up with more original comparisons when the band can’t be bothered to come up with new angles for themselves. They have ballads, and “rockers”. The song “Rubber” is their grimy, droning, dream-pop, foggy shoegaze track, but even the damp basement aesthetic that they create feels slightly forced and I almost expect one of their mom’s to interrupt them with a knock on the door and a plate full of snacks. It’s hard to really internalize any of the material on too deep of a level, because the sort of variety that they do provide from track to track often leaves them sounding like they are going through a check list and canceling out the authenticity of the previous song, not reinforcing it. Often, the only connection throughout the album feels like it stems from the heavy “throwback” leanings that they rely on. This results in the type of unifying thread, based on a surface-level gimmick, that one might find on a Weird Al Yankovic release. To me, the connective tissue feels like a smoothly processed corporate-pop under current. The main difference between YUCK and the innovators that they are being compared to is simple; they lack the innovation. Am I claiming that all music should be 100% original, miraculously conceived from no where, and with absolutely no clarity of influence? No, but what I am saying is that I can’t really hear YUCK‘s own voice over their adopted formula.
For many of the young kids that fall in love with the concept of a time period like the Sixties, it’s been easy to grab up every album of every band from that time period, or search for street cred by claiming a love for anyone and everyone that found a spot on the Woodstock lineup. If you consider the current festivals that take place now, however, it becomes clearer and clearer that not every single group is equally talented, just because they might be arbitrarily grouped together. People forget that the The Mamas and the Papas were a band with huge corporate support and that authentic, innovative and timeless groups like the Grateful Dead held a very limited amount of respect for them, at best. Now they’re all lumped into one big “summer of love” package for the kids, complete with tie-dye shirt and a hemp necklace with a glass-blown mushroom pendant. Blumberg is only about 20 years old. That means that he was born around the time that Nevermind was released and I’m sure that, for some who were born at this time, there is no differentiating between Gavin Rossdale and Kurt Cobain‘s true musical contributions. 1991 was also 10 years after the highly-influential, Thurston Moore-curated Noise Fest in NY. Moore and Sonic Youth have been influences on many, but their voice is also extremely identifiable and strong. Sure, there are commonalities between musicians; Stephen Malkmus (Pavement), Doug Martsch (Built to Spill), and J. Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.) have all hit random moments in their guitar lines that sound like they could have come from any one of them, but those moments come organically, while they are passing through their unrestrained solos. Black Francis‘ voice and guitar work have a rough edge that claws into the listener’s gut. The same is true with Mascis‘ work and that of Moore, etc. Pavement‘s distortion and cynically apathetic moments have also felt as sincere as their more genuine and heartfelt one’s. There’s an authenticity that cannot be simulated, regardless of how many guitar solos you study, how many pedals you buy, or how many Value Villages you raid. With YUCK, it just seems to be missing, and it’s unfortunate. Song’s like “Milkshake” (played at the show, but not present on the album), with references to “Making a milkshake from my heart” do little to separate them lyrically from acts like Justin Beiber. The fact that Blumberg and Bloom originally got their boost into the spotlight at the age of 15, does even less.
Their aforementioned predecessors always came across as being fairly cynical of anything other than creating art, often in much less encouraging environments. YUCK, on the other hand, sounds like what the true meaning of a “tribute band” should be, and I feel that I have no other option but to judge them as such. As a tribute band, or even an opening act, they’re pretty solid, but as great new hopes for the music industry that will create a resilient catalog of amazing work, I sincerely have my doubts. If they can step up their mind’s eyes to match their technically abilities, great things should come, but, when the sheen of their first release seems to rub off entirely, two-thirds of the way through, it’s not encouraging. The release, the band, and, subsequently, their live shows feel way too safe for the type of music that they are paying homage to and it lacks the powerful elements that should make anyone ever care to pay homage to them, in return. The easiest way to put it would be to say that, if you already love their album and seem to think that YUCK is the greatest fucking thing since Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth and the Pixies…and… Teenage Fanclub, then I would definitely recommend you going to see them. They are apt musicians and deliver everything that you could ever expect from their recordings. Then again, you could always go see Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth and the Pixies and Teenage Fanclub. If YUCK was playing at a festival, I might watch their set again. What I wouldn’t do is make it a priority over any other act that I’d care to see.
So… I get it, these guys are the “next great thing” and I’m the one guy that’s not on board, all over again. Feel free to explain to me why my opinions are completely wrong. Explain away, but try to remember that the experience of art is a lot like a joke: if you have to explain why it’s good, it probably isn’t very good, affective, or even worth it. I understand that I spend a good deal of time trying to “dissect” or “break things down”myself, but I feel like, when I do that, I am just trying to relay a feeling in detail, and it’s that honest feeling that I feel is missing from YUCK‘s routine, at this point of their career. Seeing J Mascis nonchalantly tear through amazing guitar solos and honest acoustic songs a mere week after this show, unfortunately, didn’t help my opinion of their work, either. To quote a classic Pavement track, I’d like to reiterate the sentiment: “Fight this Generation“. Ironically enough, this current generation seems to be living in the last one all over again. The least that they could do is be a little bit more interesting with their interpretation, this time around. Hey YUCK, now that people are watching you and beginning to listen, figure out what you really have to say and say it. It doesn’t seem like anyone else wants to tell you this but, if you find it, your unique voice will be your true strength always and, if you provide that unique voice that ONLY YOU posses, it will give people something else to talk about. Until then, there’s gonna be no other option for anyone than to ceaselessly beat these tired comparisons into the ground. Whether you view that as a positive or a negative is entirely up to interpretation.
Make sure to catch THURSTON MOORE @ both of these events.