Staff Pick: Way Yes wrings wonder out of sadness on full-length debut

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From the May 2, 2013 edition

Way Yes hasn’t been a singular presence in Columbus music so much as a progression of several singular presences. Since first gracing Columbus stages in 2010 under the short-lived moniker Black Love, the band’s blend of indie pop, global rhythms and sample-driven sound collage has evolved through a series of permutations.

So the Way Yes of Tog Pebbles, the full-length debut they’ll celebrate Friday with a show at Ace of Cups, is both fresh and fleeting.

“I feel like if we didn’t just say ‘Let’s release a record’ and have a framework for this record coming out, and waited six months, we would maybe have 10 different songs,” percussionist Max Lewis said.

Still, unlike 2010’s Herringbone and Walkability EPs and 2011’s Oranjudio 7-inch, Tog Pebbles took ages to complete — by Way Yes standards, anyway. Recording started back in February 2012, and writing began many months before that.

“This one had, like, a Jurassic period and a Cretaceous period,” percussionist Tim Horak said.

The hard work shows. Tog Pebbles is an all-consuming world of sound, the record when previous touchpoints like Animal Collective and Paul Simon disappear further into the tapestry and Way Yes simply sounds like Way Yes. It is as percussive as any of the band’s records, but the rhythm is bathed in celestial light and Phil Collins chic. Go Team!-style sampled chants and ghostly guitar moans out of a Sigur Ros soundscape mingle with “Dirty Dancing” sax solos and choral finales befitting “Free Willy.”

Such lite-pop flourishes might read as irony, but the only rib-elbowing aspect of Tog Pebbles is the title, a reference to Lewis’ childhood inside joke about smashing potato chips in the bag. They used the phrase as a working title, and it ended up sticking.

Otherwise, Tog Pebbles is mostly quite serious. It’s the saddest Way Yes release, which says a lot coming after the outwardly buoyant, inwardly morbid Walkability.

“It’s kind of a record that’s about things that are hard to talk about,” co-frontman Glenn Davis said.

For Davis, that includes the grooving, psychedelic closer “Holy Drop,” about a friend who died unexpectedly, and the moon safari “Get Healed,” about wanting to help a friend through depression but feeling helpless. (Think of it as the antidote to Coldplay’s schlocky “Fix You.”)

For the band’s other songwriter, Travis Hall, the struggle hits even closer to home. The resplendent opener “Colerain” is not about the elementary school down the street from his house, but the death of his mother: “When I sleep, you are still alive/ And I wake up, and you go and die all over again.” The glitched-out, Afro-percussive “Piranha” tackles the same subject: “Tried to wrap my arms around your ghost, but I couldn’t reach.”

“I feel like songwriting has become the only way I can deal with it,” Hall said. “I don’t feel like I’ve ever completely dealt with it, but songwriting helps.”

To flesh out such expansive sounds, the group recruited friends like brass masters Evan Oberla and Kevin O’Neill plus singers Maryn Jones, Mary Lynn Gloeckle and Counterfeit Madison, all of who will join Way Yes on stage Friday at Ace of Cups to re-create Tog Pebbles in all its splendor. Jones, from the folk band Saintseneca, will play solo to open the show, as will the rapper Envelope.

After that, plans to promote the record are up in the air somewhat. They’d like to tour, but they lack a booking agent to land them well-paying gigs and haven’t been able to get much traction booking themselves. They also lack label support; Lefse, the experimental West Coast label that released Oranjudio and reissued Walkability, opted not to release Tog Pebbles.

What Way Yes does have working to their advantage is a close community of supporters and a restless creativity that continues to push them onward and upward. Both of those factors will be on display as the band celebrates its biggest and best record yet.

“I feel like it’s us, but it’s also a new us,” Davis said. “I hope everything we put out ever is going to like that.”