By Andrew Hall | 1 August 2011
Following the release of See Mystery Lights (2009), I’d essentially written off YACHT as an overstretched Pacific Northwest community art project that somehow found its way onto DFA so it could take everything I hate about Pacific Northwest community art projects (ironic appropriation of mainstream R&B, too much whimsy, a general unshakeable feeling of being homemade in the worst way, poor approximations of dance music) and project them on a larger stage than anyone needed them to be on. Save for “Psychic City,” the record left me irate and annoyed with virtually everyone involved, as it felt poorly-sequenced, already dated, and nowhere near as good at grooving as the James Murphy productions they were aping.
Then I saw YACHT—still at that point just the duo of Jona Bechtolt and Claire Evans—and realized that what they did worked unbelievably well in a live setting. Despite simply playing to tracks, dancing, and accompanying their songs with a PowerPoint presentation built on faux-mysticism which culminated in them inviting fans to visit them at their apartment in Portland, the addition of an audience and the performers’ physical presence was enough to convince me that their project wasn’t entirely nauseating. Since then, the duo has expanded to a five-piece by adding Rob Kieswetter (aka Bobby Birdman), Jeffrey Brodsky, and Katy Davidson to their lineup, and it’s this band that plays on Shangri-La, YACHT’s most detailed and muscular work to date, a record that both improves upon and makes more obvious a number of the band’s past problems.
At this point, Bechtolt’s still-homespun dance tracks largely define the sound of this band. The arrangements hit considerably harder across the frequency spectrum than they did in the past, but often feel like they lack momentum—in some cases a consequence of slow tempos, in others of sticking to homages, like the electro-funk workout “Dystopia” and the LCD-approximating “I Walked Alone.” On the latter, Bechtolt’s positive energy posturing is as annoying in song as it is across the album’s overwrought spoken transitions.
However, when the duo focuses less on sounding like they belong on DFA and instead functions as a pretty good indie pop band, they pull off a handful of moments that unify song and worldview perfectly, utilizing both their expanded lineup and Evans’ understated speak-singing to great effect. The narcotized disco that drives “Love in the Dark” reveals one of Evans’ best vocal performances in its chorus, and the album’s title track is gorgeous, an immediately enjoyable blueprint for YACHT as a completely different (and much better) band. It’s on the title track that they finally do away with their dancepunk leanings entirely, opting instead for large but thoroughly understated arrangements that underpin the best melodies they’ve ever committed to record.
Live, this stuff probably kills. Recorded, it’s too tame, too overwrought, and too frustrating to totally engage with. But it is a step in the right direction and, despite its failings, a potential sign of good things to come. As far as community art projects go, I’m inclined to say that this one still has legs, even if it doesn’t prove that Portlanders can get people to use theirs.