Brooklyn's Yeasayer's evolution has always been based on a near-constant juggling of disparate sounds; the sound combinations have just been different from album to album. While 2007's All Hour Cymbals melded the watery drugged-out ethno-pop of Animal Collective or MGMT with muscular classic rock tendencies, 2010's follow-up, Odd Blood, traded yelpy vocals for a more front-and-center approach and attempted to merge brittle electronica with bigger-budget pop production. Fragrant World, the band's third full-length, follows this ever-changing pattern, leaning on R&B-informed beats, bleating synth tones, and Chris Keating's pleadingly romantic vocals. The result is the most pop-friendly and dance-oriented Yeasayer material to date, coming off like some futuristic Top 40 pop where the sonic hooks we're used to are insidiously replaced by strange alien sounds and off-kilter (if still bangin') club rhythms. Like their peers Dirty Projectors, Yeasayer have embraced the influence of smoothed-out '90s R&B and sought to meld it with vaguely Eastern sounds. Songs like "Longevity" see this slick blue-eyed R&B colliding with moody live strings and heavily processed samples. "Henrietta" mashes uneasy synth tones with hooks sounding like a more demented dub mix of a forgotten Duran Duran B-side. The band's experimentation is running at a controlled high, and at its best the band pushes the pop form to unfathomable limits without completely losing the plot or disintegrating into self-indulgent hodgepodge. Songs like the bombastic "Reagan's Skeleton" recall the cold precision of LCD Soundsystem or Daft Punk and "Devil and the Deed"'s glitchy production is frenetic as it is catchy. Fragrant World is a hallucinatory take on dance music, and the band employs a rainbow of textures and production techniques so dense that much of the nuance of the songs is easy to miss on the first two or three go-rounds. By the time "Folk Hero Shtick" rolls around near the album's close, the song's skittering from Pink Floyd-ish melodies and fingerpicked acoustic guitar breakdowns to electronic bass swells and found-sound synth tones is nothing short of head-spinning. While Yeasayer manage to avoid sounding over-produced or purposefully obtuse, the sheer volume of seemingly mismatched elements they throw out creates a thick veneer and demands the listener keep up with the walls of vocodered vocals, subtle electronic flourishes, and warped takes on mainstream pop production. For those willing to rise to the challenge, Fragrant World has a wealth of obscured moments of bizarre genius. They don't hand them over willingly, but with a little digging, incredibly interesting ideas are just below the surface.
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AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas