Sometimes, the hardest part of writing up one of these things is knowing where and how to start. Like this one for example. I’ve had a dull week at work where nothing much has happened except for me getting a movable-type rubber stamp which I have been duly abusing for days on end (my personal fave can be viewed here), the predicted snow chaos didn’t happen anywhere near here and so held little interest, and that’s about it.
So it was nice to have the mundanity scuppered by the surprise arrival of this record from Seattle’s YB’s, a band I know next to nothing about (let alone what the YB stands for) making music that largely defies a cohesive description. Of course, I could read and relate the info that accompanied this, but I always feel that doing so is cheating slightly, as well as ruining the surprise…
From the off, it’s very clear that YB’s have found a spiritual haven in Strange Earth Records. Altered Steaks sits well with Strange Earth’s apparent ethos of celebrating big riffs with an eye out for any excuse to go and hang out in the musical peripheries rather than just play it straight, which can only ever be a good thing. YB’s approach this with aplomb, taking their influences and variously wearing them on their sleeves or bending them around each other to make something altogether different.
The first three tracks are a good indication of what to expect throughout, by being initially rather baffling. Lincoln Log opens with a fat Black Sabbath beat and swampy ZZ Top vocals (the latter a feature that appears throughout, also reminiscent of a latter-day, lower register Marc Beidermann of Blind Illusion, himself no stranger to doing odd things with classic rock). Chainsaw Love replaces the big guitars with muddy keyboard funk, and Dorado pushes the envelope further by completely spacing out the vocals almost to the point of monologue over an accompaniment that happily ploughs its own cosmic furrow in the background.
In short, it’s probably not unfair to say that YB’s give the deliberate impression that if they were any more laid-back they may well fall over, which is something that can only be properly pulled-off if all involved were able to keep a tight rein on the off-kilter fun that they’re creating by being very good at what they do. They’re also not worried about changing tack to showcase their talents, going from the Iggy Pop/Spiders From Mars collaboration of Steak City to a Tom Waits lament in Highway 99 and the very ZZ Top heavy boogie of Rusty Trombone (complete with some great midsection mouth-tromboning, which is impossible to convey in type without sounding like something awful), again all in the space of three tracks. The last three tracks consist of more swampy boogie in the form of Orcas with the added bonus of a spot of late ’80s hip-hop scratching (good grief that makes me sound like an unhip Dad), an 8-minute epic groove in Haunter Of The Dark (NGBA) and the relaxed closer of La Push, which reminds me of the loose jams of their label boss’s Gardener project.
I keep mentioning things in threes in regard to this album, probably because the way that my head’s working at the moment is to look for patterns in seemingly unrelated collections of stuff. That the best I could come up with in these patterns is that “yeah, they’re all a bit different really” is equally praise for YB’s ability to cram as much as possible into their debut as well my own uselessness at anything remotely approaching proper analysis. It does hold together remarkably well for all of its initially disparate elements, making for a consistently interesting and surprising album. Here’s hoping that they continue in this cheerily eccentric vein.
Altered Steaks is available digitally from tomorrow, or if you’re in the UK, about half an hour ago. More info from Strange Earth’s website, a mere click away from here.