Yellow & Green
posted on 7/2012 By:
By now you’ve surely at least heard some rumblings, as early press and publicity onslaught turn the initial trickle of new album chatter into a full-on landslide, that today’s Baroness ain’t exactly the Baroness of old. Anyone finding him- or herself particularly surprised by that fact, however, would do well to recall that the Baroness of one record has hardly ever been the Baroness of the previous record. Ever since trading the majestic Masto-sun-sludge of the early EPs for the expansive chime-‘n-bellow of the Red Album, Baroness has been a restless thing. Still, the whispers-turned-din have been relentless and inescapable: “No more metal!” “Greatest band in rock and roll!” “Total wimps!” “Unparalleled genius savants!” Well, friends, the verdict is all of that, and none, but at least we can agree that (to paraphrase Baroness’s finest recorded moment to date) many of your fears about Yellow & Green are well-founded and true.
Even though its two halves would easily fit onto one CD, Yellow & Green is a double album, and it feels like it. That also means that it is, almost by design, a bit of a mess. And that’s okay; messes can be interesting. Though any and all traces of metal have been completely excised from Baroness’s sound, particularly given the increased prominence of cleaner singing and Southern and classic rock influences on Blue Record, it shouldn’t have been difficult to extrapolate an album like this from the band’s previous trajectory. If there’s any major continuity here, it’s that now, more than ever, Baroness sounds like four guys just doing their thing. That’s worth celebrating. But still, I kind of miss the gnashing.
By trading in their more outwardly heavy signifiers, Baroness will likely find itself speaking to a wider audience. There’s nothing inherently wrong in that, except that for all the diversity and experimentation contained within Yellow & Green, at its heart it is a confused, confusing, and frequently dull piece of work. Lovers of the pure richness of recorded sound will find an embarrassment of textural wonders here, while suckers for hooky vocals will find a band aiming for them with all its might, but often falling short. Riff-hounds, as expected, will go away empty-handed, but Baroness hasn’t been writing for them in a long while.
While both halves of the album contain a befuddling mix of styles, Yellow is likely the heavier and hookier of the two, while Green ambles even further into, well, green pastures of variegated pleasures. I suppose there are two ways to look at it. For those of you inclined to drink deeply of Baroness’s new-found freedom, Yellow will seem the rippling, tensile surface of a polymerase ocean, and Green the depths beyond fathom, the oceanic streams of unknown terminus. For those of you inclined to want at least a little bit of balls swinging behind the things you pour in the porches of your ears, you will find that Yellow blusters politely, while Green mostly drifts.
Following the lilting “Yellow Theme,” the single “Take My Bones Away” is reasonably on par with the Baroness of yestertimes, though the guitars punch in ‘rock’ mode only, and the vocals remain a hair smoother than a bellow. The only problem with the song is that the entire thing is so clearly constructed around that admittedly huge chorus vocal hook that, once it’s been digested, there’s little else to grab on to. “March to the Sea” trots out another bit of winsome hookiness, but the reverse echo/reverb effect that leads in to each word on the verse vocals is not only irritating, but works to highlight the often dodgy tunefulness of John Baizley’s lead vocals. (To clarify: in general, Baizley’s clean singing is much improved over previous albums, but there are still frequent dips into flatness that distract from the AM radio peppiness the band often drives at.) Still, the song manages to remind this particular listener of both Neko Case and The Format, so please make of that what you will.
“Twinkler” is a delicate choral piece, very much on the model of “Steel that Sleeps the Eye,” though the singing and harmonies are much stronger this time around. “Cocainium” wraps its grooves in a strangely muted production style, and its disco-styled drum beat never really brings the song anywhere, despite some neat keyboard/guitar flourishes. And really, that’s the problem with much of Yellow & Green: when the vocal hooks work, the songs stick, but too often, the overbearing focus on vocals that don’t really do much drags down the majority of a song until some quirky or (increasingly less frequent) ass-kicking instrumental bit perks it up. “Little Things” is a perfect example: the guts of the song are cloying as hell, but the squeezed-tone dual lead/solo section at its end is pretty rad.
“Sea Lungs” is at base a great tune with a tight, psychedelic twitch, but the vocals fall flat throughout the song to a distracting degree. By the time “Back Where I Belong” rolls along, something that had been nagging me since the backing vocals on “Take My Bones Away” finally clicks: this sounds a lot like Thrice. Like, a hell of a lot. Now, I really like Thrice, but the more I thought about it the more I kept hearing post-Vheissu Thrice in the vocals, and in the swirling, kind-of-rock, kind-of-post-hardcore textures. “Eula,” on the other hand, closes out the Yellow half of the album with a neatly fragile tone that leads into some near power ballad vocal repetition, and a wacky solo around 4:15. Things are looking up, then.
The Green side’s introductory “Green Theme” is a nice drifting pastoralism, even if the similarity of its introductory chords to PJ Harvey’s “The Colour of the Earth” is a bit unnerving. Still, once the song unexpectedly bursts into full rock widescreen, it is a glorious catharsis, even if it manages to also highlight the fact that such catharsis has been badly needed all along. As previously suggested, while not simply playing a ‘quiet’ counterpart to a ‘loud’ Yellow (as neither set of songs is consistently quiet or loud), Green stretches its tendrils a bit deeper into new textures and introspective moodiness. The gently mathy closing section of “Board Up the House” sounds like it could have come off Radiohead’s “Hail to the Thief,” and “Collapse” is very interesting with some almost dubby bass touches. “Mtns. (The Crown & Anchor)” is yet another example of great instrumentation doing its best to fill in when brash vocals attempting subtlety fall flat, but “Foolsong” is a non-starter, and the yelled vocal harmonies in “Psalms Alive” are frankly irritating. The album last tries to summon some rock thunder with “The Line Between,” but although the chorus is catchy enough, it’s simply not quite the big, anthemic kiss-off that the album feels like it needs in order to have earned the delicate “If I Forget Thee, Lowcountry” (which, incidentally, is certainly in the running for the year’s finest song title).
In the run-up to this album’s release, Relapse, in a gleeful refusal to acknowledge the meaning of the word ‘hyperbole’, issued a press release arguing that “[a]t no risk of hyperbole Baroness’ ‘Yellow & Green’ is on a very short list as one of the new millennium’s best rock records.” While certainly not an abject failure, Yellow & Green hardly justifies such praise. It is, simply put, a pretty decent album that desperately needs editing. By opening Yellow with “Yellow Theme” and concluding Green with the somewhat similarly-textured “If I Forget Thee, Lowcountry,” the band seems to be attempting to suggest a cyclical and thematic unity that the album does not possess. Each listener’s unique frame of musical reference will determine what sorts of influences are heard on Yellow & Green, spanning hard rock, classic roots/Americana, early 90s indie/alternative, pop/punk, emo/post-hardcore, sunny radio-ready pop, and so forth. For my money, if you squint your eyes just right, pretty often Yellow & Green sounds like Fleet Foxes and Thrice got together to play Mastodon’s Leviathan on a toy piano and a bunch of Thin Lizzy records at half speed to see what happens. This particular reviewer happens to be well, a little bit okay with that. Many of you may not be.
Ultimately, once the album has strummed its last reverb, plenty of hooks will have sunk in to your grey matter, and the tactile memory of the plaintive instrumental textures on pieces like “Stretchmarker” or “If I Forget Thee, Lowcountry” will hover like a gentle electricity. All those lingering moments are positively sumptuous, even if, once gone, they are unlikely to return. I suppose that has its own beauty, like a country glimpsed in a dream and then forgotten, fallen not to dust, but to the faltering grasp of outstretched human fingers. But those fingers once plucked, and sometimes fingers remember notes the mind has let lapse. Sometimes they play again.
Register to post comments.