In Brief: Kye Kye makes dreamy electronic music that can be captivating, but also a bit diffuse when examined more closely. Fantasize comes across as more coherent than its predecessor Young Love, but it still seems to be more about mood than meaning.
Occasionally I cross paths with a band whose sound is intriguing but a bit undercooked, and I figure they still have a bit of a refinement process to go through before they’re fully ready for the spotlight. This was definitely the case for Kye Kye, an electronic rock act from the Portland, Oregon area, with three of its four members all hailing from the same Estonian-born family. Olga Yagolnikov has one of those soothing, vaguely exotic kinds of voices that is perfect for the laid-back vibe that Kye Kye’s music gives off, while her brothers and her husband support her capably enough with a blend of sometimes energetic, but mostly ambient synth, guitar, and percussion sounds. I first heard the band as an opening act on Future of Forestry‘s Christmas tour in 2010, and while they sounded good enough in a live setting that tends to emphasize vibe and volume over lyrical clarity, I just couldn’t get into their album when I checked it out shortly thereafter. Young Love was plagued by the same problems that nagged me on a few of FoF’s records at the times, which is fitting since it was produced by FOF lead singer Eric Owyoung, who I tend to appreciate more as a performer and a songwriter than I do as a sound engineer. I forgot about the band after that point until they resurfaced, again as a promising opening act, on Gungor‘s I Am Mountain tour this January, dropping a completely fan-funded album right in the midst of that tour. Now boasting a production credit from Chad Howat of Paper Route, they’ve once again managed to pair themselves off with a like-minded electronic indie artist, but with stronger results this time around. Their sophomore record Fantasize is an effort that shows a band still in need of some work, but for the most part ready to enchant a wider audience with their strangely intoxicating sound.
Fantasize is definitely one of those records that I find myself putting on quite often just to soak in its beautiful and mostly down-tempo mood paintings, even if I find myself frustrated at times by its lack of clarity. The downside to Olga’s sweet voice is that she tends to not enunciate well, and she comes off sounding a bit detached and sort of half-there as a result. At times I’m not sure whether this is a purposeful affection, a side effect of English being her second language (like it is with Björk most of the time), or just a production choice. Her lyrics don’t tend to get as buried in the mix as they did on Young Love, but when what seems like it wants to be a strong chorus ends up blurring into its surroundings to the point where I can’t make out the specific words, and this effect is sustained over several tracks, it can really start to bug me. Lyrics are readily available on the band’s website, but there’s a part of me that feels like if you’re doing your job as a songwriter and a vocalist, people should be more concerned with figuring what your words mean than with figuring out which words you’re singing in the first place. I suppose it’s one thing if intentionally contrary, avant-garde acts like Radiohead are intentionally obscuring their words just to add one more layer of puzzlement to an already bizarre experiment (though that still tends to bug me), but Kye Kye sounds like the kind of band that wants to communicate something peaceful and powerful and unabashedly emotional most of the time, and yet it gets botched by the delivery. This sort of thing probably bugs me more than it bugs most people. But it can be the sort of thing that makes all the difference between “smash hit single” and “that kinda catchy song that I can’t remember the words to”, which is a problem considering they have several songs here that do sound like they’re aiming for the former, but winding up as the latter.
None of this should be taken to imply that Kye Kye lacks instrumental talent or personality or anything like that. The mood when they perform live is like that of a chilled-out after-after-hours dance club occasionally broken up by strains of a nature documentary soundtrack, and that mood translates quite nicely to the recorded medium, resulting in an album that flows beautifully from track to track, occasionally jolting you out of your seat with a stronger rhythm or a more climactic melody, but for the most part continually bathing the listener in a calm, luxurious soundscape. The lyrics are open-ended for the most part, and often they discuss coming to terms with one’s own emotions and the ability to love and forgive and show grace, certainly informed by the group’s Christian faith but not bogged down with advertising slogans for any specific belief system. While parts of the album can drag a bit due to the tempos not really shifting out of “slow to medium” past the first couple tracks, the best moments on Fantasize can feel like you’ve been whisked away to some secret place that only you and your lifelong lover know about, and you’re being serenaded by this lover as time seems to slow to a near-complete stop around you. And then a disco ball drops from the ceiling and you slow-dance together. Or something.
1. I Already See It
The opener is a good indicator of how most of this album will play out – spacey synths, breathy vocals, sparse drums that gradually fill in more of the gaps until the song reaches a beautiful climax, and occasional bits of guitar that add to the euphoric texture of the song without necessarily establishing a definitive “lead” or “rhythm” part. The song is one of the better examples of Kye Kye doing this well, easing you into the album with what seems like a lullaby, but gradually unfolding into one of the album’s more explosive and thrilling soundscapes (I can definitely hear the Paper Route influence here.) If abstract lyrics voicing incomplete thoughts that throw grammatical convention to the wind bug you, then prepare to be bugged quite a bit by this song’s chorus, which for as much as I can tell, seems to be a meditation on having patience as a relationship gradually unfolds… “You and I…/It doesn’t come at once…/You and I…/See for yourself where it goes…” Perhaps the song is about faith, or feeling something deep down in your gut that you can’t quite see or describe in a tangible way. It would make sense, because this is the kind of song that feels beautiful when I listen to it, but intellectual analysis of what it’s trying to say threatens to make it fall apart at the seams.
2. Honest Affection
If Kye Kye had a shot at a breakout single, this would be it – by far the most up-tempo track on the record, immediately slamming you with its triumphant synth hook as it heralds the arrival of some hero from afar, and then making excellent use of the band’s rhythm section as a steadily rolling drum track in 6/8 time syncs up perfectly with the synths to create one of the album’s hottest grooves. (80s music fans, think “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and you’re sort of on the right track.) Olga plays to her strengths here – even if you can’t understand half of the words she’s cooing into the mic, she switches back and forth between her usual low-key, trance-y approach, and a more more excited higher-pitched chorus, which ends with her words melting so perfectly into the synth melody that they might as well not be words at all. Looking at the lyrics, the song seems to be about bravely facing fears and admitting that genuine love is something that will change you and force you to confront the parts of yourself that you don’t like so much. But if you want to imagine it’s about mythical warriors fighting to defend the honor of their emperor in a far-off land, go right ahead – the music video seems to encourage that, what with its imagery of Japanese gardens and samurais and WWII fighter planes and such.
This song has one of those mid-tempo grooves that just oozes coolness – there’s something in the way that the chilly yet bubbly synths melt into the persistent bump-hiss-tap-hiss of the drums and cymbals that makes it immediately appealing, compelling even folks like me who wouldn’t be caught dead in a dance club to sway the old hips just a little and hope no one notices. The minor-key melody, though straightforward, is also incredibly addictive, and I’ll be danged if I can figure out what the deal is with this mysterious “her” that people are trying and failing to connect with in this song’s chorus, but I do enjoy the final breakdown, which goes from calm to sublimely funky as Olga repeats her discouraging mantra: “They see my heart… they keep away.”
The band tricks me into thinking they’re doing an acoustic number here, when this one opens with its natural piano chords and its rolling snare drums. It’s an incredibly tranquil song that still manages to keep the beat rolling along smoothly, and it doesn’t feel like an interruption when glittery synths and other “glassy” sounds are gradually mixed in – it’s done in a tasteful way that augments the intimacy of the song. The usual abstract lyrics seem more poetic here, more clearly capturing a sense of beauty and supernatural wonder than usual, even if they’re still quite open-ended: “Blank earth meets weight pity and fear/Glass clear thoughts for the shortest slight moments/Pure birth, seems I’m furthest from it/Does the light just disguise you, or can you be found in it?” Her vocals are looped quite beautifully as the chorus arrives at its main hook: “Desire hits me so sweet (so sweet, so sweet…)” It’s just one of many elements that contribute to the feeling of this song being an infinite reflective pool of calming sounds. It’s the third winner in a row on an album that’s been batting way higher than average so far.
5. Scared or Selfish
Sadly, they can’t all be winners. This piano-based track, one of the quietest on the album (at least at first, before the big, heavy-hearted drums come in) is the kind that I’m sure will strike an emotional chord with some listeners, as its vulnerable, confessional lyrics (actually written by her husband Tommy) once again seem to be vaguely addressing the fear of letting others in, due to how opening oneself up to love and be loved might upset the status quo. Olga hits all the right notes vocally in one of the band’s clearest and most relatable choruses… unfortunately it’s that sudden clarity that highlights a bit of lyrical clumsiness: “Scared or selfish, who are you/Blame myself for what I use/I want to have you/I want to have you.” It’s that word “use” that seems out of place here. It’s already an awkward rhyme with “you”, plus the song is mostly in the first person, so the “you” seems like the song is being inconsistent about that, but even if it’s asking someone else who they are and how they will respond to her fear/selfishness, it still isn’t clear what’s being “used” (I’m assuming not drugs), and it might have worked better if the lyric was “blame myself for who I use”. The vagueness of that statement keeps us outside of what sounds like it’s meant to be an honest and gut-wrenching confession… we can’t tell what the song is apologizing for. I’m probably overanalyzing, but since that lyric is part of a repeated hook in a song that has few other lyrics, it tends to overshadow a lot of other subtle things that this pretty little song gets right.
6. Dreams (2am)
I’m usually a sucker for the sort of pensive, ambient electronic music that seems like it’s tailor-made for late night blogging or whatever, so I figured at first that this track would be right up my alley… but I don’t know, it’s just sort of there. Nothing bad about it. It’s dreamy in exactly the way you predict it might be, and it has a sort of wispiness to it that makes it drift away from its verse/chorus structure here and there and just soak in the quietness of an early morning hour spent pondering a dream you just woke up from. Once again, the lyrics are a big part of the problem… they don’t say anything awkward or embarrassing, but they fail to be specific in a way that helps the listener to connect with the meaningfulness of whatever vision came to Olga in a dream. The chorus is literally just this: “You said wake up in the morning/You said, AHHH-AHHH-AHHHHH.” It sounds pretty enough. But it’s already running the risk of blending into the tranquil late-night mood of the song before it, and the dreamscape of an interlude that follows it, so maybe this is just an issue of pacing.
If you got confused and thought “I Already See It” was the album’s title track, due to the word “fantasize” appearing in its lyrics, then you were… right, actually, because the actual title track is really just an under-two-minute reprise of that song, with a gooey Jeremy Larson string arrangement instead of bass and drums, and a lot of vocal layering as the first verse and chorus of the song are repeated, eventually blurring together and vanishing into the ether. This is probably intended to divide the album into front and back halves, but it shows up in the midst of the already down-tempo and somewhat less compelling middle section of the album, and I’d almost prefer this as a bookend at the close of the album instead.
This song strikes me as so schizophrenic and hurriedly cobbled together that I’m not even sure whether “filler” is the appropriate word. Normal album filler eases you through a gap between the more noticeable songs, but this one has the strange distinction of feeling like an interruption and a repetition of ideas better expressed in other songs at the same time. A lot of it is due to the verse, which has a flat melody that Olga half-sings like she’s really out of it, with a lyrical cadence that’s so close to the “You and I” hook of “I Already See It” and “Fantasize” that putting it right after the latter seems incredibly unwise. It arrives at its chorus quickly, and blunders through it with stuttering repetition and another awkward placement of the word “use”: “Waiting for the seasons, the darkest attacks/Darkest attacks, darkest attacks/Forgetting all the reasons you used in the past/Used in the past, used in the past.” Then the bridge kicks in, and suddenly there’s this gorgeous, flight-of-fancy guitar solo that reminds me of something I could have sworn I heard in a Trails and Ways song a few months back. I love that, but it has jack to do with the rest of the song, which has little to do after that point but blurt out its chorus one more time and then unceremoniously end. the track length is almost three minutes, but the song itself barely exceeds two, with the last half minute or so devoted to a bit of a sneak preview of the next song’s main guitar riff – also an odd choice, because I feel like it would have worked better if it flowed seamlessly into that track rather than coming to a full stop and leading us to think the next song was something completely different. Or if that little snippet of guitar showed up earlier in the album to foreshadow something to come much later. In any event, everything about this track is bafflingly out of place.
The wobbly mid-section of this album begins to right itself again with this lovely little track penned by producer Chad Howat, which is the one that gave me the disco-dancing analogy, because its has a very gentle, disco-esque sort of rhythm to it, which brings us back to the feel of tracks like “People” and “Glass” that did such a good job of balancing a solid groove with calm meditation. I really wish the previous “interlude” hadn’t botched the intro here, as I find myself wanting the song to just start with Olga’s soft vocals and then slowly bring the guitars and the rhythm in without that misleading tease at the beginning, or else find a way to make it start with the riff and build from there. Once you get past the awkward transition, though, it’s as smooth as butter, building beautifully from its modest rhythm foundation to a drum-pounding climax rivaling that of “I Already See It”, and yet never sacrificing its dancefloor vibe in the process of bringing in those more primal elements. I get the feeling that this one could have been a real banger if the tempo had been sped up and the guitar riff had been applied more forcefully throughout the song, which would have been great fun, but then it would have killed the intentionally soft, romantic mood of the song in the process. Sometimes less is more, and the group was wise in their restraint here.
As lovely as Fantasize can be at its best moments, we’ve been in a bit of a slow-to-mid-tempo lull ever since “Honest Affection” wound down eight tracks ago, and while this song doesn’t up the tempo in any way, it definitely turns up the quirkiness with its insistent, buzz-saw synth melody that comes roaring out at you with all the subtlety of a cloud of angry bees. It’s intentionally jarring, and when combined with the icy, unwavering rhythm of the song, the effect is somewhat psychedelic. It’s an interesting way to change things up late in the album, and I wouldn’t mind hearing Kye Kye explore more of a spectrum of harsh vs. pretty sounds on future releases. The lyrics here are about as heavy on the world salad as your average R.E.M. song (except that R.E.M. would cram in more of them), so I won’t make an attempt to interpret them here. They seem to play a supporting role in between that massive synth hook and the more peaceful sounds that swirl around it, though, and I’m fine with that because the sound of it is enjoyably off-the-wall enough that I can accept any sense of meaning being deliberately obfuscated.
11. Hiding Place
For all intents and purposes, this track wraps up the record with yet another slow, sort-of-eerie and sort-of-pretty melody, finding Olga settling into a place of peace and comfort, her own little private garden where she can, presumably, commune with God as Adam and Eve once did in Eden. It’s a compelling lyrical idea, but musically a lot of what’s going on seems like old hat for Kye Kye at this point, so I tend to let this one sort of drift by me, only realizing as the next track cues up that it’s the last fully realized “song” that I’ll hear before the album winds down. The foreboding piano, and the synth sort of imitating an organ, hint at a grand entrance to a place of majesty where mortal souls should not tread lightly. But the build-up isn’t as climactic as it is on some of the other tracks, so I guess this one feels more like it belongs somewhere in the album’s center, rather than at the end.
The actual closing track is an instrumental coda, basically three minutes and change of fluttery synthetic sounds drifting by like clouds, while shadowy bass notes slowly shift underneath and the guitar picks out a very slow and peaceful melody. It’s pretty for a minute or so as a transitional piece (if something more tangible were to come after it, at least) but it’s not really a great way to wrap things up, feeling more of a hidden track than a true finale. At this point in the ongoing evolution of indie music, a piece like this says little other than “Hey, we want you to notice that we really like Sigur Rós, too!”, and you might manage to distract me with warm, fuzzy memories that way for a fraction of a minute, but then I start wondering if you have anything original to add… plus I’m quite vocal about not letting Sigur Rós themselves get away with doing nothing but this for an entire track these days. Guess I should be glad that at least it’s not nine minutes long or something.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
I Already See It $1.25
Honest Affection $1.75
Scared or Selfish $.75
Dreams (2am) $.75
Hiding Place $.75
Olga Yagolnikov: Lead vocals, guitars
Timothy Yagolnikov: Programming, keyboards, guitars
Alex Yagolnikov: Keyboards
Tommy Phelan: Drums