BY JOHN SCHACHT
There are records that beg a longer courtship for their full seductive powers to take effect, and they are often the ones whose impact marks us the most. Such is the case with Sam Cohen’s second LP as Yellowbirds, whose warm and rich textures, spectral voices, and existential and lovelorn themes have the power to charm beyond their pop song formats.
In these nine tracks, Yellowbirds branch out sonically from the twang-infused bedroom folk and pop of the band’s well-received 2011 debut, Color. Moving to a fully equipped studio for Vanished Frontier’s recording, the songs emerge significantly more polished —imagine a leap from the Love Language’s analog murk to the Shins sparkling pop, and you’ve got an idea of the production difference.
But where that transition and its surfeit of options submerge too many bands in sonic overload, Yellowbirds instead make judicious use of the new toys at their disposal. That puts the emphasis squarely on Cohen’s sun-dappled songwriting, where it blooms like an evening sky over the Pacific. Succinct pop tracks like “Young Men of Promise” (surely a James Mercer outtake?) and the autumnal, Clientele-like “Julian” work so well because the fundamental elements —strummed acoustic or subtle electric syncopation, robust bass lines, crisp drumming —never get overshadowed, even in the more fully arranged instrumental bridges.
Those tracks contrast wonderfully with the more indie psych fare that recalls Cohen’s previous band, Apollo Sunshine. “The Ceiling,” a hazy five-minute trip, features feedback bursts detonating around Annie Nero’s evocative bass — revelatory throughout the LP — like depth charges above a low-running sub. Cohen’s reverb-laden vocals on “Love Stories” suggest Roy Orbison singing the English Beat’s “Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” while the textures on opening track “Stop Tonight” — harp glissandos billowing around baritone guitar lines — read like Jens Lekman’s off-beat R&B pop.
Cohen’s laid-back singing and pleasant alto are the glue holding these styles together, with the additional bonus that they mirror the mysteries-of-love-and-life narratives to a tee. On the elegant processional “For Girls Who Love to Sing,” subtle glitch effects blend with Beachwood Sparks-like guitars-and-harpsichord atmospherics as Cohen questions his relationship luck: “All the gentlemen falling at your feet/Would you break their hearts/let them taste defeat?/How could you love a boy like me? You’re just too pretty.” And on the disc-ending ballad, “What’s Out There,” Cohen croons like a higher register Benji Hughes over the baritone guitar riff and Bacharach-like strings, wondering why he should care about “what’s out there.” The song drifts off beautifully into a dreamy jam, one that serves as its own counter-point to his question.
That song, like many here, works steadily and sure-footedly through its buildup into its slow-burn crescendo. From that standpoint, it’s similar to how repeat plays of Songs From the Vanished Frontier eventually win your heart over so naturally and memorably.
DOWNLOAD: “Stop Tonight” “The Ceiling” “Mean Maybe” “For Girls Who Love to Sing”