As observed by The Future Heart before, Sam Cohen’s aptly named Yellowbirds isn’t just his new band, it’s a full-blown art project. He created their LP cover, hand-printed silk-screen limited edition CD cases (that’s Sam pictured left at work on them) and painstakingly created the music video for début single, “The Rest of My Life” (by cutting-out hundreds of pictures from books and magazines, photographing them in thousands of frames and editing them into a stop motion animated collage – the whole process took three months, watch it below).
Likewise, the songs on début album The Color befit both its title and the band’s name. Yellowbirds’ music creates an imaginary world like a particularly inspired artist would paint, but played out in sound instead of on a canvas. It’s artistry in every sense of the word – full of tints and textures, shades and shapes…
If you could actually “listen to the color of your dreams” – as John Lennon suggested in “Tomorrow Never Knows” – it might sound like Yellowbirds.
Sam is a true six-string master – in both the dexterity of his fingers, and the creativity of his fret (and foot pedal) work – but it’s the many other sonic colors on Sam’s palate that bring the full picture of his imagination to our ears. There’s psychedelized autoharp, various “ambient tracks”, dreamy harmony vocals (especially on the exceptional “Rings in the Trees”) and splashes of organ with a “‘60s-ish“-ala-a-contemporary-noir sensibility (like, say, Dangermouse’ new Rome project – but hipper). There’s also Sam’s stunning singing – The Color’s title-track had me wondering if he’s related to Leonard Cohen.
One of the sounds that most stood out to me was a strange synth on LP closer, “The Reason”. On the night I first met Sam, two-and-a-half months ago, I asked him what it was. I remarked it reminded me of the clavioline sound on The Tornados’ “Telstar” – the signature record of quirky producer Joe Meek (compare this 1962 instrumental hit to 0:38- 0:53 of “The Reason” in the video embedded below to hear what I mean). Sam said the tiny red keyboard he used – pictured above via The Phoenix.com/Boston – was a rare instrument called a “bambino” (I Googled it the next day and found nothing). He added that Meek – along with fellow producer-pioneers Les Paul and Phil Spector – inspired the sound of his record, which explained a lot – including the use of the “bambino” being reminiscent of the clavioline (an obscure predecessor to the analog synthesizer associated with “space-age” ’60s records by Meek and Sun Ra, Del Shannon’s “Runaway”, The Beatles’ “Baby You’re a Rich Man” and, more recently The White Stripes “Icky Thump”). I also mentioned that “The Reason’s” outro reminded me of The Beatles’ “Flying”…
…at which point our conversation went into a tangent on the joys of listening to Fab Four’s stereo masters, one speaker at a time …
Yellowbirds “The Rest of My Life” video debuted on Paste, and then on Pitchfork/tv. Follow-up video, “The Reason”, premiered this weekend at NPR’s First Watch. A collaboration with sketch artist Michael Arthur, it uses similar stop motion editing techniques as “The Rest of My Life” and wonderfully develops the “art project” element of Yellowbirds. Sam explained to NPR how the work with Michael developed: “I went to his studio, he opened up a locker containing 10 years’ worth of notebooks filled with amazing drawings and told me I could use them in any way. I marked the pages I thought I could animate and he scanned them for me — and in some cases water-colored them. He also made some new drawings specifically for the video.”
See “The Reason” here:
Sam cut the pictures, making 1,650 individual frames that were edited into the finished video. He elaborated to NPR, “The Reason” is about those brief moments when your place in the universe makes sense, though when you try to explain it, you realize it was more an experience of feeling than embraceable logic. You have to be able to laugh at that and embrace the experience all at once. Looking through Arthur’s notebooks, I chose “The Reason” because there was a theme in his drawings that connects to that song. He has a lighthearted way of poking fun at characters wrestling with bleakness and confusion that lets you know he is participating in that, too.”
Michael explained to NPR, “Essentially, I have an ongoing interest in combining drawing with music — either through videos or live experiences — and I saw this as an opportunity to collaborate with Sam as a composer and producer, using my drawings as someone might use tracks laid down for an album. Sam took my drawings and sort of “mixed and mastered” them in an amazing way, using them, and seeing in them, an extension of his original music… I have a bunch of drawings that are crammed with images that blend in to each other — but he was drawn to a lot of my simpler things, and that sometimes surprised me in a really wonderful way… I only started working in color recently, so the opportunity to go back and color old drawings was another really exciting part of this project for me…I love how the video includes drawings from as far back as 11 years… some drawings of folks I’ve seen at Joe’s Pub (where I’m the archival artist), and some as recent as a month ago.”
“Looking at the last video Sam made for Yellowbirds (“Rest of My Life”), I just thought it would be great to let him at my backlog of sketchbooks and see what interested him.”
Watch “The Rest of My Life” here:
Released February 15th on Royal Potato, The Color – Psych Explorations of the Future Heart’s most anticipated album of the year – also received favorable reviews from Pitchfork, Pop Matters, Relix, Bass Player and others, but don’t take their word for it… hear for yourself: the entire album streams at yellowbirdsmusic.com…
Sam, also an accomplished session guitarist, came to prominence as the co-founder of Apollo Sunshine. With their critically acclaimed eponymous sophomore album in 2005 and its overlooked 2008 follow-up – contemporary psych cult classic Shall Noise Upon (made with Drug Rug, Edan, Viva Viva, White Flight and Dave Fridmann) – Apollo Sunshine fused several decades-worth of styles into their own radiating vision. But it was their energetic, eclectic and eccentric live performances that earned them their fanbase, straddling the divide between indie kids and the jam nation. Likewise, as cool as The Color is – and as admirable as the art is – the full impact of Yellowbirds comes through the intimacy and command of their live performances. Their in-store at Brooklyn’s Permanent Records on February 25th was the best-sounding set I’ve ever heard. If this seems like hyperbole – it’s not. By the time I saw them at Southpaw a few weeks later they had toured a bit (including several SXSW shows) and tightened their chemistry (adding a psych-tastic ambient jam to segue between songs and developing garage-rocking set-closer “Our Good Days Are Gone” into an epic show-stopper of Hendrix proportions). If you have a chance to see them live – take it! As of now they are mostly gigging in the New York area. To request Yellowbirds play in your neck of the woods, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with your favorite local bands and venues…
May 15 | Rocks Off Boat Cruise | Brooklyn, NY
May 27 | The Loft | Brooklyn, NY
June 9 | Cameo | Brooklyn, NY (w/ Sean Bones)
June 23 | Glasslands | Brooklkyn, NY (Wild Honey Pie presents…)
On Sunday, May 15th Yellowbirds will headline the Rocks Off Concert Cruise Aboard The Half Moon, also featuring WOLF! The boat departs at 2:00 PM from New York’s Skyport Marina (East 23rd Street & FDR Drive East side – maps/directions), embarking on a three-hour tour (echo: “a three hour tour…”). Tickets ($20 advance, $25 day of show) are available here and questions can be directed at email@example.com. All explorers of the future heart are urged to attend – the cruise soundtrack will be “the color of your dreams”…
UPDATE – Yellowbirds July Tour Dates:
- 7.10 // Brooklyn, NY // Bell House w/ Vetiver
- 7.16 // Northampton, MA // Iron Horse w/ Wye Oak
- 7.22 // St. Louis, MO // Off Broadway w/ Josh Ritter
- 7.23 // Knoxville, TN // Bijou Theatre w/ Josh Ritter
- 7.24 // Birmingham, AL // Alys Stevens Center w/ Josh Ritter
- 7.26 // Charleston, SC // Music Farm w/ Josh Ritter
- 7.27 // Carrboro, NC // Cat’s Cradle w/ Josh Ritter
Watch/ listen to a Yellowbirds video playlist here.