Yellow Fever’s apparent fascination with both cats and rats -- as found on the cover art and in their lyrics -- is fitting: The music is at times playful, but the hooks can quickly turn deadly. The Austin trio has stayed fairly local since forming in 2006, and this self-titled debut culls re-recorded material from the handful of EPs floating around town. The record was released through Vivian Girls’ label, Wild World Records, but the two groups have only passing similarities. Whereas Vivian Girls are messy and brash with pop melodicism, Yellow Fever takes the same girl-group dynamics and pairs it with minimal, quiet ingredients.
Opener “Ratcatcher” sets the tone: Sweet harmonies intertwine over spare drums while bass and guitar play a three-note melody. It catches your attention precisely because of the sparseness in sound, and it’s almost obtuse in its simplicity. “Cutest” builds steam over quickly ascending guitar-bass interplay, but a sudden minor-key interlude pushes the song into an off-kilter ditch before heading back for familiar ground. It’s a subtle shift, but it works when the music is this seemingly straightforward. It’s catchy pop music taken to a modest extreme; the undeniable earworm “Donovan” sounds like a demo for the Ronettes or the Shangri-Las.
Despite the limited instrumentation, a song like “Psychedelic” can sound widescreen because of the band’s persistence and lockstep precision. Lead guitar follows the vocal melody and occasionally adds Eastern flavor, while lead singer Jennifer Moore slyly intones “Why won’t you recognize how psychedelic I am/ And love me/ Love me.” Repetition serves them well on “Cats and Rats”: Slow, chugging guitar builds to the stuttering chorus, and it’s the only moment in the record in danger of becoming unhinged.
However, this buttoned-up attitude starts to wear thin as the record winds on. The back half sags under several strummy mid-tempo numbers, as if the band was afraid to make the entire record as sparse and engaging as the beginning. The laconic singing also doesn’t help; it works well up front but 20 minutes in, both singers sound tired and downright bored. Confidence is required with music this devoid of flash, and Yellow Fever seems to run out of it when the songs start bleeding together.
There’s something refreshing about the unfussy sound of Yellow Fever, but it’s also a little unsatisfying. Combining elements of ‘60s pop and ‘80s indie yields fairly good results for the band, but Yellow Fever would be wise in taking cues from their noisy label mates. A little danger thrown into the mix would go a long way in removing the predictability of the record, a quality that can be quite a disservice in the modern musical landscape.