[30 March 2009]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, as we know them, are dead. Again.
When this punky trio released their eponymous five-song EP in 2001, the group was immediately lumped in with the Strokes as the leaders of that much-ballyhooed “garage rock revival” that was to counterbalance America’s apparent addiction to the disposable teen-pop of the late ‘90s (note how the Strokes’ Is This It came out only two months after NSYNC’s Celebrity did—as blatant a paradigm shift as there ever was). Though this revival didn’t take the mainstream swing that many were expecting (you don’t hear much from the Detroit Cobras or the Dirtbombs these days, do you?), it did produce a genuine rock star (in the form of Jack White), a slew of guilty pleasure hit singles (the Hives’ “Hate to Say I Told You So” and the Von Bondies’ “C’mon C’mon” chief among them), and a glut of commercially neglected, top-quality albums from smaller acts like the Soundtrack of Our Lives and the Cato Salsa Experience.
Though some of these bands were already several albums in when this revival started, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were on the top of everyone’s list because of those five gritty, trashy, in-your-face songs. Though tracks like “Art Star” may have lost some of its luster over the years, the group’s debut outing remains a visceral, uncompromising listening experience, the whole thing hinging not only on Karen O’s wildly manic vocal mood swings, but also Nick Zinner’s fuzzed-out guitar mastery. When you boil it down, part of the reason why the Yeah Yeah Yeahs became rock stars in he first place is because they acted like rock stars from Day One (and it certainly didn’t hurt that they had the songs to back it all up).
Instead of capitalizing on the huge buzz afforded them by the UK press, though, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs decided to wait a few years for things to cool off, instead releasing their debut full-length Fever to Tell in 2003. Yet instead of being an adrenaline-shot of straight-up garage-punk, Fever displayed a more artful, melodic side of the group, showcasing a mastery of pop hooks (“Pin”), mainstream balladry (“Maps”), and remarkably strong songwriting chops (“Modern Romance”). The do-or-die, amplified frenzy that defined every moment of their debut EP was dampened a bit this time around, but the tradeoff between rock fury and pop accessibility was more than fair: as tracks like “Maps” and “Rich” proved, the band hadn’t even started writing their best material yet.
Yet now we get into what makes the Yeah Yeah Yeahs one of the most frustrating and fascinating groups out there today: they are always, always, always changing their sound. Their 2006 release Show Your Bones practically abandoned their trademark amps-to-11 sound in favor of a warmer acoustic vibe. Though the resulting album produced some utterly gorgeous rock-ballads (“Dudley”, “Cheated Hearts”, “Turn Into”), the recording sessions were rife with tension, largely because the whole album began as a Karen O solo project; when Zinner and drummer Brian Chase were finally brought in, Zinner was at continual odds with producer Squeak E. Clean (now of N.A.S.A.) regarding the direction of the band’s sound. A SPIN cover story around that time was about as depressing a read as you could find: practically every member of the band was sure that Show Your Bones would be their last album.
Then came the curveball.
The group’s 2007 EP Is Is silenced all the “sell out” cries from purists in one foul swoop. This little five-song furybug showed the Yeah Yeah Yeahs rocking heavier and harder than they had in years, and—most critically—it sounded like Zinner was back and in full force. More than anything, the Is Is EP proved that the band could not only go back and forth between blitzkrieg rock numbers and readymade Bic-lighter anthems at a moments notice—but that they could’ve done it all along. When you take this all into consideration, It’s Blitz! is a helluva lot easier to explain.
It’s Blitz!, quite simply, is the band’s pop album. Lead single “Zero” makes this abundantly clear: rapid guitar stutters meet thumbing backbeats and—at the song’s half-way point—a killer buzzsaw synth riff emerges that makes you want to give in to O’s plea for “getting your leather on” without a moment’s hesitation. No YYY’s song has ever been as disposable, replayable, or just outright fun as “Zero”, and therein lies the joy: though the band has always flirted with mainstream songwriting before, this is the album where they flat-out embrace their pop instincts, and—in the oddest twist of all—never have they sounded more at home.
The first four songs on Blitz!, in fact, might as well be the YYY’s most consistent track-by-track winning streak since their debut EP. The secret? Each of these songs quietly upset our expectations that we have coming into them, much as how the understated “Maps” took so many of us by surprise back in 2004. “Heads Will Roll”, for example, is easy to dismiss as nothing more than a synth-heavy, guilty-pleasure dancefloor number, but when you actually sit down to listen carefully, you realize that the bassline is ripped straight out of New Order’s “Blue Monday”. Such blatant plagiarism—though unsettling at first—actually makes perfect sense: New Order always wound up sneaking subversive lyrics into their made-for-radio club tracks, so why can’t the Yeah Yeah Yeahs? Armed with this knowledge, a seemingly simple line like “the river’s all wet / you’re all cold” takes on greater meaning, registering less as a mysterious metaphor and more as a sinister kissoff to an ex-lover (which, let’s face it, is exactly what Karen O does best).
“Soft Shock”, with its slow-strobe keyboard patterns and backwards-relayed guitar lines, winds up mining the same musical territory that the band tends to use when they want to get emotional (see: “Maps”, “Dudley”), and—just like all those other times—it works, the heavy atmospherics giving weight to Karen O’s sometimes haphazardly stitched-together (read: interpretive) lyrics. Yet when “Skeletons” switches on, all bets are off. What starts as a simple experiment built on Dntel-styled electronics soon turns into a rich, full-bodied anthem—a play-it-right-before-the-final-credits-of-your-movie kind of anthem. Chase’s drumkit begins pounding like a wave of tympani’s, Zinner’s guitar jacks up the echo effects to create a canyon-like feel, and all Karen O does is sweetly coo away the pain, barely raising her voice above a whisper and perfectly counterbalancing the epic musical backdrop behind her. It’s a stunning moment that’s made all the more stunning when you realize this is the same band that wrote punky sleaze numbers like “Date With the Night” only six years prior to this.
Unfortunately, not every song on Blitz! is as awe-inspiring as “Skeletons”. Though “Dull Life” serves as another clever rock history lesson (here updating the B-52s’ classic “52 Girls” for a modern rock audience), it lacks the same punch that the first four tracks had, relying more on its technique than its actual melody to drive the hook home. The heavy-handed “Runaway”, meanwhile, is the prerequisite “sad piano ballad” that the group would inevitably have to write sooner or later, but not even Zinner’s rapidfire guitar fury can save this surprisingly toothless number from drifting out of memory moments after listening to it. It’s not that the band isn’t trying to make these moments work; it just feels like the group is satisfying our expectations instead of defying them (“Of course they’ll want a piano ballad!”).
Yet if the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are good at one thing, it’s surprising us, which is why some of their best songs are always buried at the end of their full-lengths (see “Modern Romance”, “Turn Into”). Continuing in this vein is “Hysteric”, a mid-tempo ballad where everything falls perfectly into place: romantic keys bump up against Zinner’s passive-aggressive guitar lines, and even Karen O is unafraid to stutter for half the chorus (and whistle during the outro), resulting in one of the strangest, warmest, and most delightful slow-dance numbers you’ve ever heard. “You suddenly complete me” she whispers, and right as the guitars swell amidst the talk of a charred earth you turning your heels black as you walk with your beloved, it suddenly becomes clear: almost a decade after they rose to national prominence, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are still finding new ways to change their sound, and with each and every twist and turn, their songwriting has only gotten better.
No, It’s Blitz! is not the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ masterstroke, but, in all honesty, it doesn’t need to be. None of their full-lengths can really be considered “classic”, but the band has admirably overhauled their sound each and every time, and though some fans may inevitably get lost in the shuffle, it’s hard not to get excited by a group that wants to sonically challenge themselves with every go-round. On Blitz!, Nick Zinner may have traded in his guitar for a keyboard, but the resulting album—flaws and all—shows a band embracing their gift for writing a pop melody without having to sacrifice an ounce of their attitude, and, for that, we applaud them.
Make no mistake: the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, as you knew them, are dead. Just don’t be surprised if you like new version a little more.