It’s usually a really good sign when I remember exactly how I got introduced to an artist. When I know how I found him or her or them. And I know exactly how I ran across El Michels Affair. Boozoo Bajou are to credit for this as they included EMA’s gorgeous cover of “Hung Up On My Baby” on their second “Juke Joint” compilation. Both of these collections are marvelous with the only downside that they never received a vinyl edition. Several entries on this site would probably never have happened if I hadn’t bought these two compilations, and this review might just be among them.
For years this project was sort of a serious side project of Leon Michels. He might not see it that way, but in a way this is how it turned out in a way, with Michels getting more and more sought after as a producer, composer and session musician. Every now and then there would be a single or an EP – but most of the time Michels would be in the studio lending his talents to people like Jay-Z or Beyoncé.
Things started to change about three years ago when Michels first worked with singer Piya Malik for the 7″ “Unathi/Zaharila” – both songs can also be found on this album. According to him, nothing more than that had been planned, another nice little project between jobs. And every time he would come up with a great idea for a new song, he didn’t keep it for El Michels Affair. In a recent Rolling Stone interview he said: “I would always get a couple tracks together and think, ‘Oh, this would be cool for a new El Michels Affair record,’ and then I would give them away to somebody else.”
So why did that change? It would be easy to attribute this to the Corona crisis and the sudden inability to just hop on over to someone’s studio for a session. “Adult Themes” – only the fourth album in 15 years – was released in 2020 and was obviously conceived before the virus turned things upside down. Probably it was just the joy of finally doing something more substantial than a little one-off, the opportunity to create something that would more clearly define what kind of group El Michels Affair really is (or to show that this is a group of musicians in the first place – and not a solo project).
“Yeti Season” on the other hand was heavily influenced by the pandemic. Michels tells the story of a magical day in a year that didn’t have too many of those when he put on an old Yeti costume to chase the kids around the snowy garden, and how this event triggered the creativity that went into this album.
Who would have thought that the hiemal ghoul would ever be credited as an inspiration for a really unique and heartwarming collection of songs? But here it is, and that’s what this album is. Just the total opposite of ghoulish and cold. But as we can see on the cover (and in the picture book that comes with the deluxe version of this album) – Yeti is a really friendly guy after all.
The sticker on the sleeve calls the album “a mind bending amalgamation of El Michels Affair’s trademark cinematic soul & Turkish Funk”. That’s mostly accurate – but luckily it’s just part of the story. Just take Piya Malik – she is not exactly a Soul singer and she doesn’t sing Turkish, it’s Hindi which places her a lot closer to what people think should be the home of Yeti – the mountains of the Himalaya.
But it really doesn’t matter that much. The beauty of this album is not based upon some kind of formula that would be accurately executed, it’s a wonderfully playful affair, mixing inspirations, abilities and elements and combining them without prejudice, without a hint of a cliche and a pure love for music, culture and humanity.
I can’t help thinking about how Khruangbin have risen to fame with a similarly innocent and playful approach, effortlessly blending musical traditions from their home in Texas with Asian Pop Music to create a sound and style that is as incomparable as what we can hear on “Yeti Season”.
El Michels Affair is not a three piece band of course, and their foundation is not the Blues, it’s the cinematic soul mentioned on the sticker and a good dose of classic Hip Hop (the drumming is a big part of what makes this album so cool). But the loveliness that emanates from both projects is similarly overwhelming.
Michels’ music hugely benefits from all the elements that went into this on top of their already great abilities: the urgency and drama that is immediately conjured up when someone like Piya Malik sings in Hindi, the unique funk rock disco coolness of Turkish music à la Barış Manço, and a few wonderfully wacky song ideas – it all puts this project on a level that easily surpasses the already highly praised “Adult Themes”.
“Yeti Season” has everything you can like about an album. It has a nice concept, has the right balance of coherence and variety, plenty of beautiful ideas and discoveries, and it’s a wonderful listen from start to finish. It makes you wish all those one track download people would understand and rediscover the idea of the album.
The opening track “Unathi” already showcases all the magic – a great swinging sixties kind of feel, slightly psychedelic and decidedly funky, Piya Malik singing with a sense of purpose and drama, as if she was yearning for something and trying to get people to understand something really important. The film starts here, it’s doing everything to address all the big feelings humans can have, and the horns make sure that everyone understands the urgency.
Some songs seem like elaborate interludes, soundtrack songs – “Sha Na Na” is one of them – but it’s wrong to call them that as well, they are all crafted with the same care, based on equally fine ideas, and El Michels Affair are never short of great melodies, whether they are sung or played on the piano or presented with great earnest poses like the horns on “Ala Vida”. Every track is full of discoveries in harmonies, melodies, audacious breaks and great choices in instrumentation like the bar piano in “Ala Vida”. After the third track you will be smiling. Latest.
And that’s just where things get really started. You know something funky is going to happen when you hear Tamer Pinarbasi’s Qanun intro to “Fazed Out” and the big trumpet fanfares start in – this slowly grooving, dramatic and funky oriental mini suite is simply outrageous and a true gift. Oh, and in case you didn’t know – a Qanun is an old Turkish string instrument that resembles a zither.
You will love the album by the end of the A side when Piya Malik comes back for another wonderful rendition that is cheeky and dramatic and funky at the same time, and the band accompanies her with a super cool and funny, fuzzy synth theme and some very funky drumming. Still one side to go!
Another one of those interlude-like songs, as if taken from some obscure sixties Italian movie, slow and winding and with almost corny background vocals, fake whistling wind and meaningful trumpets: “Lessons Learned” seems appropriate as a title. But then it’s off to the East again – “Dhuaan” has Piya Malik on several layers with another very important message, supported by fuzzy guitar solos, a totally outrageous break with the singer laughing and teasing and showing what a tough girl she can be – it all twists of into Far Eastern action movie soundtrack psychedelia. Amazing stuff.
After “Perfect Harmony” and “Silver Lining” widen the spectrum of scenes for our imaginary soundtrack – again with magnificent drumming and smart little melodies – “Zaharila” gives us one more dose of Mrs. Malik. It’s the second song off that 7″ mentioned above and is a slow groover that builds up to high cinematic drama that will let you hope for a Tarantino movie set somewhere in Hindustan and featuring exactly this song. Big trumpets, big emotions, big screen, including a fantastic finale with the song speeding up, Michels going crazy on the flute and Piya Malik yelling out something we don’t have to understand in order to understand.
The “Last Blast” is totally appropriate end titles music for the movie you never thought you wanted to see so much. “Yeti Season” will make you as happy as Leon Michaels’ kids must have been when he chased them around the yard in his Yeti costume. You will put this on repeat.
Release for review:
EL MICHELS AFFAIR – YETI SEASON – BIG CROWN RECORDS – BC060-LP