The first sounds from "Shangri-La," the new album by Portland, Ore.-based dance-pop band YACHT due June 21 on DFA Records, debuted on the label's website in March as part of the "White Out Sessions," DFA's promotional web video series.
There isn't anything visually impressive about the "White Out Sessions." In fact, the clips are almost comically minimal: just an anonymous hand unwrapping a newly pressed vinyl record and playing it on a turntable for the first time. For the Yacht segment, the vinyl was the 7-inch for the band's new single, "Dystopia (The Earth Is on Fire)," the first material the group had released since its critically acclaimed fourth album, "See Mystery Lights," in 2009. A curious tension builds as the needle slips into the groove of the record, and by the time the first synth chord hits, it's clear just how much things have changed.
YACHT isn't a new act. Started in 2002 primarily as a solo project for Jona Bechtolt, YACHT, which takes its name from Portland's alternative youth program, Young Americans Challenging High Technology, of which Bechtolt was a member in the '90s, was initially a platform for his experiments at the boundaries of electronic music, art and technology. But it wasn't until the addition of Bechtolt's longtime friend, writer/vocalist Claire L. Evans, who came onboard during the making of "See Mystery Lights," that the act earned recognition as a new breed of pop auteur.
"Yacht make dance music now the way a band like the Talking Heads made dance music," says Jonathan Galkin, co-founder of DFA Records, which signed the act three years ago. "They funnel inspirations through a blender that keeps 4/4 time-all the while trying to connect with a broader public via the medium of the perfect pop song."
Together, Bechtolt and Evans, both religion and science-fiction enthusiasts, are the kind of act that pursues reinvention by default. "See Mystery Lights," YACHT's debut on DFA, was a thrilling spirit quest elevated by mantra-esque singalongs and freak-out dance breaks that became the label's most successful release outside of those from flagship band LCD Soundsystem. Cadillac even picked up the infectious single "Psychic City (Voodoo City)" for use in a commercial.
On the disco-fueled "Shangri-La," YACHT has been reborn yet again. A concept album about mankind's pursuit of utopia, "Shangri-La" was recorded in Portland, Los Angeles and Marfa, Texas (or, as Bechtolt calls it, "the utopian triangle of Western music"), with the band using professional studios for the first time. The result is a much fuller and cohesive sound that embraces LCD's alchemic principle: more live instruments and less laptop wizardry."We wrote and recorded all of the songs in the studio with no material written beforehand," Evans says. "There was no engineer-we mixed and mastered everything ourselves. We essentially had [the studio owners] give us the keys."
Following the unveiling of "Dystopia" in the "White Out Sessions" video, the band took its new songs on a cross-country promotional tour. The lively sets were an all-out campaign for hearts and minds, but if the audience could only spare one or the other, that was OK, too.
"We try to provide an experience where you can choose which way you want to go," Bechtolt says. "If you want to go deeper into [the lyrics], there's enough there to dig into. But if you want to just dance and turn your brain off, we think that's totally appropriate as well."