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"Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless - like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle, you put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend."
So says martial arts guru and actor Bruce Lee in a sample over synthesizers that serves as the beginning of The Yellow Album, an engaging third album from The Slants, a self-proclaimed "Chinatown Dance Rock" outfit based out of the music hotbed of Portland, Oregon. The quote serves as a kind of musical epigraph for the album (which, like the band, derives its name from the decidedly tongue-in-cheek humor of the band members, all of whom are Asian-American) and it is a highly fitting one that reflects the diverse rock influences that The Slants combine, often in bluntly juxtaposed fashion, in their work.
Lee's quote dissolves into one of the album's most likable tracks, "Con Kids," an upbeat number complete with a pulsing drumbeat, some well-employed synthesizers and hints of country-western twanginess in both the driving bassline laid down by bassist Simon Young and the similarly cool, low-pitched vocals of frontman Aron Moxley. The lyrics and rhythm are at times reminiscent of The Pretenders and (much more distantly) Cake, but ultimately the band blends the song's various influences to create a track that is energetic, appealing and very much its own, one that sets the tone for the rest of the album.
While the album clocks in at 42:13 and sometimes feels much longer during some of its weaker tracks, there are plenty of other highlights. Immediately following "Con Kids" is a track entitled "Love Letters from Andromeda" whose title and chorus (sung well by Moxley) suggest a tribute (whether intentional or not) to Peter Schilling's "Major Tom" (itself a tribute to "Space Oddity," by David Bowie, whose influence can also occasionally be heard as the album wears on); however, unlike its predecessors, "Love Letters" manages to shift quite adeptly between electronica and a more conventional rock sound--one of many examples of the band trying to obey Lee's exhortation to "be water." Here, at least, they succeed.
Despite occasional lapses into mildly drab sameness during the album's lengthy middle portion, the band finishes strong with "Sour Love," another synth-infused effort that also boasts some good work from lead guitarist Johnny Fontanilla (who left the band shortly after the album's completion) and "Yellow," which after a ponderous intro morphs into a brief section that sounds directly out of Depeche Mode's catalog, only to switch back to a more conventional rock sound once more. Once again, The Slants' dexterity is what makes this number a few cuts above what a typical garage band or tribute act might produce.
Overall, "The Yellow Album," is far from perfect, but it succeeds in keeping alive a sound that flourished 30 years ago while simultaneously reinforcing The Slants' distinct identity. Although the band fails to (and perhaps cannot) completely "be water," it has nevertheless created a listenable and (at times very) enjoyable album.