Like some bespectacled, scraggly-haired, rock-and-roll version of Kanye West, Rob Bryn, the front man of Brooklyn’s Wild Yaks, bombards his listeners with a fully unironic and unfiltered version of himself. He has a reputation for panting and sweating profusely in performances as he hurls his lyrics at the audience in a mangled roar. When Bryn is accompanied on vocal duties by the rest of his band, Wild Yaks sound like a gaggle of Neanderthals who have traveled through time to open for indie-rock royalty Local Natives. With frenzied drumming and exuberant hollering, both Wild Yaks’ live show and their 2012 LP, Million Years, have inspired phrases like “angry nerd music” and “drinking band” among fans and critics alike. None of those qualifiers sits too well with Bryn, however. “To be drinking or yelling [music] was never the intention. To be angry was never the intention,” he told me. In fact, the complete opposite was true: “It was always supposed to be love music.”
In order to get his message across, Bryn needed to put the yelling on the back burner. He’d have to sing. “When I first started the band, not only could I not sing, I had no confidence in my singing,” he says. While much of his previous material focused on “complaining about something esoteric in my life,” what he really intended was “to make music that was in praise of existence.” Rejoice! God Loves Wild Yaks is the result of that effort.
Since its inception, Wild Yaks’ lineup has constantly expanded and shrunk like an accordion. Rejoice! God Loves Wild Yaks was recorded primarily as a trio: Bryn, bassist Jose Aybar, and drummer Martin Cartagena. The bulk of the tracking was done in a frenzied, three-day session this past winter at Marcata Studios in upstate New York, where some of the space was so cold that Bryn says, “you put your food in the refrigerator to warm it up.” Yet even though the recording was done in haste, Rejoice! still feels like the group’s least hurried batch of songs. While on previous tracks like “Father” and “Crazy But Not Afraid,” drums and bass provided the fuselage to propel Bryn forward, here the arrangements subtly frame his newfound vocal agility. “By the time we got in the studio, I was singing so sweetly,” he says. “I didn’t know I could do that before.”
Opening track “Paradise” plays like a revised history of the band’s previous recordings. The drums catapult the song forward in typical Wild Yaks fashion, but Bryn sounds fully in control, his voice cutting straight through the crunching guitar chords. From there, the winds shift strongly and blow Wild Yaks into new territory. “Golden” is colored in pastels, with a stately horn line and a gentle bridge that showcases the tenderness in Bryn’s voice. “Divorce the past,” he intones, with the calm demeanor of a hipster Pope. And he’s not the only one: on the following track, “Wise One,” his bandmates’ warm vocals prove to be far more effective than their previous cacophonous growls.
“Anyone can do mania,” Bryn told me. “To have restraint is way more challenging.” Nowhere is this more apparent than on the heart-wrenching slow burner “Ex Wife.” Over a skeletal drum machine and scattered clusters of bells, Bryn evokes both Tom Waits and indie-pop hero Future Islands’ Samuel T. Herring in one fell swoop. “It’s Christmastime, I’m all alone / broken and confused,” he deadpans, each syllable hanging in the air like a big bruise. “Come on baby, take the next flight,” he croons. It may be one of the group’s most downtempo tracks to date, but they’ve never sounded so urgent.
Even though Rejoice! demonstrates Wild Yaks’ ability to move away from their frenzied past, it’s also full of exuberance worthy of its title. “Night” pulls a jabbing guitar right out of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, and the blasting horns in “Paradise” elevate the song to new heights. Closing track “Woman” brings the album back to where it started, a reminder that Wild Yaks have lost none of their fervent, thumping energy.
The poet and songwriter David Berman, of the Silver Jews, once quipped, “All my favorite singers couldn’t sing.” For a while, it seemed to be the appropriate compliment for Rob Bryn and his unflagging passion. But with Rejoice! God Loves Wild Yaks, he’s learned to hit us in the heart, not just in the gut.