When C. Spencer Yeh makes a statement along the lines of “Not that I was going for anything intentionally grotesque, but I felt like kicking around these acoustic sounds really loud and dry, just made it more visceral,” it’s instinctive to assume he’s referring to some instrumental or electronic effect or process capable of clearing a crowded singles bar with the flick of a volume knob. From sphincter-tightening scree to layer-cake drone to minimalist crackle, the Burning Star Core mainstay knows his noise P’s, Q’s, and Z’s. The avant-garde stews in which Yeh has dipped a hand, a violin bow, or a mixing board—unruly, loopy, or shrink-wrapped—are legion, and the Cincinnatian–turned–New Yorker can often be found testing the limits of timbre locally, solo, and in collaboration with fellow travelers.
Yeh, as it turns out, is holding forth on the decision to apply reverb to his vocals on Transitions (De Stijl), a new collection of verse-chorus-verse originals and covers that has the effect of simultaneously overturning his experimentalist bona fides and showcasing artistic abilities that the likes of Challenger, Inside the Shadow, and the Solo Violin series could only hint at.
“I was absolutely appalled when I started singing at rehearsal,” he remembers during an early October e-mail interview. “I was talking with someone about this recently, and they suggested electronics ‘to help with blending the voice into the music better.’ I was like, ‘Reverb?’ ‘Yes.’ Ha. And all this time prior, I tried to avoid reverb as much as I could, when I would use my voice as other means. Boy, it’s going to be my friend now.”
Indeed, there is companionship about Transitions. Rangy and slightly parched, its 10 songs carry the feel of well-executed demos doubling as short fiction. If last year’s “In the Blink of an Eye”/”Condo Stress” single suggested life for him exists beyond improv’s sub-basement, this album proves it. Yeh, whose low-end register telegraphs a gravity that could be mistaken for pathos, works almost exclusively in three gears here: desiccated rock ‘n’ roll, desiccated rock ‘n’ roll with synth-pop flavors, and immersive synth-pop. (While Yeh recorded Transitions solo, Tall Firs’ Ryan Sawyer and Daren Ho [a/k/a Driphouse] will join him onstage for the CMJ show—the first time these songs will be performed in a live setting. “I’m working on one or two others, who aren’t confirmed right now, so I can’t name them.”)
Yeh is fond of rogues—see the shorter tracks on last year’s 1975—and Transitions goes in for a few. “Laugh Track,” a singsong-y tumble for horns and piano Yeh describes as “more of a question mark or contrasting piece” and “Don’t Make Me Chase You,” which pairs screwed vocals and caffeinated synth, immediately register as outliers. But “Whose Life” arrives armed with arch, perspective-unaffiliated lyricism and sciatic-nerve feedback. The song’s powers of appraisal are as multipurpose as they are open ended; the question it poses isn’t, in an unlaced Spoon-single way, so much “Who’s that girl?” as “Who’s that girl now?” On “Something Forever”—all flailing, controlled chords and cryptic imagery—Yeh’s stylistic resemblance to David Byrne is uncanny. And though “The New Guy” ingratiates via overly generous shakers and sloppy distortion, “Starts With a Look” is poised, chromatic, and second-person romantic enough to give even the most cynical misanthrope a glimmer of codependent hope.
If Transitions‘ originals are worth the price of admission, though, the covers are a wonder, and find Yeh pushing his vocal reverberation agenda into dangerous, exciting places. In his hands, Father Yod’s “I Can Read Your Mind” is transformed from a psychically minded, amorphous folk curio into rattling, cosmic trolley cruise, what Yeh calls “the ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ to my campaign.” Elsewhere, and perhaps more impressively, he flips Stevie Nicks’s smoldering, late-1980s adult-contemporary hit “Rooms on Fire” into early 1980s pop bubblegum—check those massed, Duran Duran sandpaper synths—a move inspired in part by tour-drive mix-CD making with laptop noiser John Wiese.
“We’d make lists of songs while driving, and whenever we stopped, we’d pull these playlists together,” Yeh recalls. “[Wiese] was the one who brought ‘Rooms on Fire’ back to my attention, as a song where he had held onto a certain lyric/hook in the back of his mind, but he couldn’t identify the artist or song, and then we figured out who it was, and kind of went on a mini-Nicks bender from there, down to even debating whether the Billy Corgan cover of ‘Landslide’ handled this particularly awkward verse melody better than Stevie did. Like, Corgan didn’t go for this low note that Stevie did in the original.”
Yeh had better watch himself. He runs the risk of becoming part of the never-ending Stevie Nicks reinterpretation conversation that Corgan has long dominated. Until now.
The C.S. Yeh Band plays Death by Audio on Friday, October 19, with Circuit des Yeux, Samara, and Messages.