An afro from Jersey, a moody-looking Japanese chick, two scruffy Londonites. Characters from an upcoming Tarantino flick? No, it’s the ultra-fuzzy indie band Yuck! In the millennial age of Americans voraciously consuming Downton Abbey and Dr. Who, talk of an NFL team headquartered in London, and the Chinese turning out for Hollywood films in the billions, this multinational quintet represents the further deconstruction of the international borders of pop culture.
Unfortunately, in spite of their cultural boundary-breaking, Yuck doesn’t have it easy.
After soaking up the critical love following their self-titled debut, the band has encountered increasing amounts of malice from various critical sectors pining for the influences of departed frontman Daniel Blumberg following the release of their sophomore album, Glow and Behold, growing even sharper with their 2016 release, Stranger Things. Here are a few examples:
Comparing Yuck to the Blumberg-fronted version of the band, Evan Rytlewski from Pitchfork suggested that “the scrappy enthusiasm of Yuck’s debut has been replaced by bland, box-checking competence.”
Carl Purvis from the British publication Ripcord laments that “unless Yuck’s reshuffled lineup can forge an identity for themselves in future releases, anything they record is going to be plagued by the shadow of their former frontman’s contribution to their excellent debut. Daniel Blumberg quit the group before their second LP (2013’s Glow and Behold). On that record, the scuzzy rawness that made their debut so impressive had vanished, and was replaced by a bland, toothless piece of work.”
Finally, in his rather nasty assessment, Jesse Nee-Vogelman from Slant opines, “Rather than work to create emotional complexity through intricate or unexpected lyrics that complement their musical accompaniment, Yuck’s approach relies on placing a bromide of self-loathing over a pretty melody. Such contrived profundity is little more than a sleight of hand: While the juxtaposition of upbeat music and melancholic lyrics has succeeded for artists from the Beatles to David Bowie, here such tactics, amid music that betrays so little originality, render these hackneyed emotional confessions nothing more than indulgent.”
Gee whiz…Having suffered through that pretentious babble, I’d gladly “juxtapose” Nee-Vogelman’s “bromide” of “profundities” for an ulcer. One would think that the departure of Blumberg was somehow akin to Lou Reed leaving the Velvet Underground (oh whoops! Rytlewski made that comparison). In the words of Chairlift’s Patrick Wimberly, “can everyone just calm the fuck down?” Yuck’s debut was okay, but it certainly wasn’t the 90s throwback masterpiece certain rock writers have claimed. It seems these pundits are comparing Yuck’s subsequent releases to much better albums (see Nee-Vogelmen’s above-mentioned references to Bowie and the Beatles), which isn’t quite fair for a relatively low key indie band that records songs in its guitarist’s bedroom.
As a result, Yuck has become something of a musical pariah, battling through predictions of a quick demise and relentless accusations of their ripping off a myriad of 90s shoegaze acts (apparently a bad thing, suddenly?).
Yet, amidst the hatred, Yuck has soldiered forward as guitarist Max Bloom took the reins of the band after Blumberg’s departure. Interestingly, when critical reception of Yuck became harsher, I grew into a much bigger fan of the group (perhaps because of my inclination to stick Pitchfork the middle finger whenever possible). I’ll admit to initial intoxication with the band after being struck with the great rock riff occurring in “Get Away,” however, beyond that tune and a couple others (notably “Operation” and “Suicide Policeman”) I didn’t quite understand the tremendous critical clamor afforded to the band’s debut.
Yuck smoothed out and broadened their sound, creating a far more consistent effort with Glow and Behold, and the critics cried foul. Evidently, the band was finished without Blumberg’s lyrical work. In spite of the assault, Yuck is back with the decent and at times very good Stranger Things. Recorded in Bloom’s bedroom, Stranger Things is a tale of a few vibes – the album’s first four songs are mostly short squelchy pop songs lacking much in terms of chord progression and complexity. Yet, once the record hits the second act it embarks upon a string of really engaging tunes beginning with “Stranger Things” through “Hearts in Motion,” which are as good as anything Yuck has recorded (except for of course the immortal “Get Away”). Part three abruptly screeches to a crawl with the slow-moving “Swirling” to the even more relaxed “Yr Face” to close out the recording. While not a masterpiece, Stranger Things provides some exciting highs (bassist Mariko Doi’s lyrical fronting of “As I Walk Away” stands as the definite zenith of the album) along with the bits of mediocrity that, by the way, accompany the vast majority of indie rock records. I am sympathetic to the critical notion that Yuck is still a band in transition searching for an identity, which shifts in tone from the debut to Glow and Behold and to the current release exemplify. However, in spite of various critical reactions to Yuck’s post-debut albums, this pursuit for an identity is not necessarily a “struggle” for the band members (as harsher critics insist), but rather an exploration of sounds and vibes – although the band has yet to hit its sweet spot, listening to Yuck try has been an interesting journey nonetheless.
I have written this rant partially in service of discussing my attendance at a recent Yuck show in Denver (which was incidentally the band’s first ever performance in Colorado).
After South by Southwest this year, I watched some footage of a Yuck performance at the festival, and to say the least, I was pessimistic about the Denver show. The festival set seemed listless and the audience non-existent. In contrast, the Yuck show at the Larimer Lounge was well-attended (the space was packed) with an enthusiastic crowd more or less familiar with Yuck’s discography. The set included some of the highlights from the debut and a couple of tunes from the underrated disc Glow and Behold, but the band utilized the majority of the show as a vehicle to showcase most of the tunes from Stranger Things. Rather than resting upon what many critics conceive of as Yuck’s better compositions, I applauded their choice to emphasize the new stuff, as the band teased out some elements from what I found lacking in Stranger Things’ initial run of tunes. The show led off with “Cannonball” and “Hold Me Closer” – songs I have yawned through a few times, but their live interpretations added a crispness and immediacy that contributed valuable additions to the set. Yuck also made the interesting choice of starting the encore with “Yr Face,” a tune that plods somewhat in the closing moments of Stranger Things, yet the aired out guitar in this live version, made for jammy, space rock fun to set up the closing number in the show, “Georgia.”
Regarding the notion that Yuck is a band in the process of finding its identity, I hope that search continues to employ the talents of bassist and occasional lead vocalist Mariko Doi. Doi is currently undertaking a side project band called Parakeet with James Thomas from The History of Apple Pie (Parakeet’s debut full length KASA will be out in late April). She is a really great bassist, and her moments as a vocalist on the band’s recordings and live sets are often a highlight. I would love to see Bloom evenly share the lead signing role with Doi rather than the occasional turn she takes as a singer on Yuck’s recordings, perhaps even trying out some duets. In the meantime, as an unrelenting fan of the talented, battered, underrated underdog (big Arizona Cardinals fan talking here),
I’ll continue to enjoy Yuck albums while disregarding the misguided playground bullies of music criticism.
Music is cool, and I write about it sometimes.