Say Psych: Album Review: Yard Act – The Overload

The Breakdown

Compiling and recording a debut album during a pandemic is quite an achievement, to pull one out of the bag this good and capture the hearts of a nation in the process should be applauded, and if the reception they have received this week is anything to go by, Yard Act are here to stay.

In many ways, Yard Act exist through the fusion of seemingly opposing entities. Old friends in a new band, they seek out shades of socio-political grey, imbibing their stories with sharp, satirical spoken-word humour. Spearheaded by James Smith (vocals) and Ryan Needham (bass), the now four-piece, completed by Sam Shjipstone (guitar) and Jay Russell (drums), have built a sound that speaks inherently to their birthplace of Leeds, West Yorkshire, and yet ties together observations from all walks of modern British life – the small-town bloke in the local pub, the anti-capitalist stuck at a desk job, the tired activist in all of us torn between easy complicity and the desire to fight. Their sound and ethos might be progressive, but it’s not about pointing fingers so much as opening eyes.

“Lyrically, I think it’s a record about the things that we all do – we’re all so wired into the system of day to day that we don’t really stop and think about the constructs that define us,” says Smith. “But also beyond that, it’s kind of exciting, because there’s still so much we don’t understand; how a hive mindset is forged, how information spreads, how we agree and presume things without thinking. Some people think more than others, but a lot of this sloganeering – ‘I’m on the left, I’m not wrong’ – doesn’t achieve anything. Gammons, Karens, Snowflakes, whatever – I find it all so boring. I’m just not into that.”

What Yard Act are into is ideas. Having grown from relatively casual pub acquaintances to housemates, Smith and Needham found living together to be conducive to a high work rate, racking up demos in quick succession. Settling into a system of programming, looping and layering, the alchemy between the two created a base from which to build their narrative world. “Ryan is a vibe guy, whereas I overthink everything,” laughs Smith. “It’s been the greatest creative partnership I’ve ever had. When you find a groove that works, it just kind of looks after itself.” With just three hometown shows under their belt, world events intervened. But rather than letting the pandemic derail them Yard Act set up their own imprint, Zen F.C. and across the course of 2020 and into early 2021 released four increasingly coruscating, hilariously dark singles with ‘The Trapper’s Pelts’, ‘Fixer Upper’, ‘Peanuts’ and Dark Days’ all securing BBC 6Music play, and despite the circumstances developing a remarkable, ever increasing fanbase.

The Overload, the band explains was “At Ryan’s insistence was actually called ‘Yard Act The Musical’ for a long time, but I’ve got a really weird relationship with musicals, as in I fucking hate them,” deadpans Smith. “I don’t want to overthink it, but I do like concept albums, and I do think stuff works better when it’s given time to be gestated and let people pick at lyrics and think what they mean.” While time-travelling in parts sonically, The Overload weaves a very-2021 storyline. The group made the decision early on to leave ‘Fixer Upper’ and ‘Dark Days’ off their album debut (“it sounds arrogant, but we felt we had enough good songs without ‘em”), but the joyous specificity of their early lyrical observation is still in fine evidence, plotting a visceral, satirical journey through capitalism and greed. Across the album’s 11 tracks, an unnamed character – a bricolage of characters that Smith has met, imagined, or himself been – finds himself in quite the financial pickle, ricocheting from desk job to desperate illicit activity to police investigation, before culminating in the kind of half-cut personal epiphany that even the most law-abiding among us could relate to. Bookended by cheeky cameo’s from ‘Fixer Upper’s’ Graeme and a clear structure of four parts, there is no getting around it — Yard Act have written a soap opera.

Opening with ‘The Overload’ they waste no time in marking their intent for this album; a wax lyrical observation of life, a curtain twitching, soap opera like tale told through a collection of songs each constituting a new episode with a version of altered reality. ‘Dead Horse’ is a darkly comedic take on the dire political situation that most people perceive as daily reality and at the same time makes a blatant swipe at the blatant disregard for the arts that has come to the fore during the pandemic. ‘Payday’ continues the mockery, this time their aim is the local council for failing to address potholes and the global arms race within a sentence; genius or mental – you decide. The disconnected bass in ‘Rich’ makes this track a haunter, staying in your subconscious long after it has finished and ‘The Incident’ round of this trinity of cynicism with a lighter note, advising you not to look below the surface and you’ll be fine.

The short and sweet ‘Witness’ is a synth and bass lead conjunction that allows a moment of lightness, which is sorely needed in amongst the prevailing tone of doom, even if it is tongue in cheek. ‘Land Of The Blind’s loose-swinging bass and jabbing guitars gives acerbic pace to its sordid tale of financial exploitation. The influence of post-punk is apparent, but the shackles of ‘authenticity’ have been shaken loose – “I think we could all feel that this post-punk thing was getting tired; ‘Land Of The Blind’ felt like quite a pivotal song in switching us away from what people thought we were.” ‘Quarantine the Sticks’ is the track most akin to those on the EP and will appeal to those who joined their army of fans early on. The final three songs make up a mighty triptych, with ‘Tall Poppies’ discussing the narcissistic peers they grew up with and the featured piano changes the dynamic significantly, with an upbeat aura claiming dominance. Synth tinged ‘Pour Another’ personifies a typical Friday night putting the world to intoxicated rights, and finally ‘100% Endurance’, a poignant, emotional release which finds some kind of freedom in the futility of it all, an opportunity rather than an oppression; “It’s all so pointless/ But it’s not though is it?” As a closer, it surmises the juxtaposition they have tried to achieve from the first beat.

Compiling and recording a debut album during a pandemic is quite an achievement, to pull one out of the bag this good and capture the hearts of a nation in the process should be applauded, and if the reception they have received this week is anything to go by, Yard Act are here to stay.

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