Track of the Week: Yeasayer's "Ambling Alp"

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 5 2009 3:10 PM

Track of the Week: Yeasayer's "Ambling Alp"


Jonah Weiner: Hi, Jody. In deciding the song we'd discuss this week we considered a few candidates, but "Ambling Alp" excited us most. Yeasayer is a New York band, and this is the lead single from its forthcoming 2010 album, Odd Blood . We start the song ankle-deep in noise, out of which bursts an ecstatic eighth-note clatter, snares that thwack with some serious '80s-style reverb, and a poignant hooting melody that serves as the musical and emotional anchor. (Animal Collective, to whom Yeasayer have been occasionally compared, start their great single " Grass " with a somewhat similar dynamic build, although this one opens up even bigger.) "Ambling Alp" rewards headphone listening: There are all these little sounds scurrying and rattling in the mix, including a little gasping vocal sample I only heard on my fifth spin.  

I don't mean it as an insult when I say that the song puts me in mind of a hipster Rusted Root. (Rusted Root is best known for its minor 1995 hit " Send Me On My Way ," which I loathed then for its white-guys-in-dashikis vibe but have since come to enjoy, albeit suspiciously, for its unabashed corniness.) I guess I'm thinking mostly of the unabashedly corny themes of personal affirmation in Yeasayer's lyrics (the refrain goes, "Stick up for yourself, son," and the song, like Yeasayer's breakout single " 2080 ," is about keeping your head up: "Your lows will have their complement of highs," Chris Keating assures us at one point) and the way this positivity jibes with the polychromatic, polyrhythmic music. I'm sure Yeasayer spend much more time listening to David Byrne and Brian Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts , but it's nice to hear a band working in indie-rock/art-rock—sly, oblique genres, by and large—that is all to happy to pen a jubilant self-help anthem. Also there's a line about giving fascists hell, and who can't get behind that?

Jody Rosen: Jonah, forget Rusted Root. Try Baha Men . One of the things I love about "Ambling Alp"—and there’s lots I love about this clattery art-pop freakout—is the fact that it’s a stealth jock jam. As best I can make out, the second verse goes like this: "Oh, Max Schmeling was a formidable foe/ The Ambling Alp was too, at least that’s what I’m told/ But if you learn one thing, you’ve learned it well/ It’s true, you must give fascists hell." The user-generated lyrics sites that I checked have a totally mangled version of the words. ("Old Man Schlemming" etc.) Evidently there’s a history-literacy problem in the hipster community.   Worse: there’s a boxing-literacy problem. See, the song’s about Joe Louis and two of his famous opponents: Primo Carnera , the pugilist-hero of Mussolini’s regime, and, of course, Hitler’s beloved Schmeling, Louis’ foe in two legendary 1930s bouts. "Ambling Alp" sounds like some "poetic" indie-rock nonsense; it was actually Carnera’s nickname. (The dude was a man-mountain .)

But, yeah: Yeasayer uses this boxing stuff as the jumping-off point for an admirably unfashionable uplift anthem. Keating sings: "And if anyone should cheat you/ Take advantage of or beat you/ Raise your head/ And wear your wounds with pride"—sentiments so insipid they could comfortably snuggle up inside a circa-1990 Whitney Houston ballad. Just what you’ve been waiting for, Williamsburg: your very own " Greatest Love of All ."

The thing is, Yeasayer is an amazing band. I’m not as instantly smitten with this song as I was with " Sunrise " (2007), which, for me, rates as the absolute apotheosis of this decade’s bizarro Brooklyn psychedelia. (Sorry, TV on the Radio.) But I love the way the band takes what could be a fairly standard exercise in '80s revivalism—I hear more Depeche Mode here than I do Byrne/Eno, by the way—and just screws it up. Check out the little breakdown around the 2:24 mark—that freaky falsetto chorale. Also, the terrific organ solo that erupts at 3:44: a little circa-1967 garage rock plopped into the middle of 1987. All these flourishes enhance "Ambling Alp" without overstocking it. (Unlike a lot of indie arty-farties, Yeasayer are real songwriters; they take care not to disrupt their music’s momentum with too much fussiness.) Plus, the bassist is a straight ninja.

J.W.: Funny you mention Depeche Mode—listening to the rest of the album, which will be out in February, I heard singing that reminded me in places of Dave Gahan. Keating is a bit of an over-singer in a way I like—he sells his stuff. I didn't hear much Martin Gore, but then again I wasn't listening for it.

J.R.: You’re right about Keating. He knows what line of work he’s in: show business. I like that. He has a nice upper register, too, which he loves to show off. (In just about every Yeasayer song, he breaks out the falsetto by the time the bridge rolls around.) He really could be a rock star, if Yeasayer weren’t such dedicated weirdos.

But, wait, Jonah, how come you have the Yeasayer album advance and I don’t? Who’s the flak that’s servicing you with this product? What is it—do you have more indie cred or something? Aren’t you the guy who likes Creed ?



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