No band has gone farther on as little actual musical output as of late than The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The fashionable Brooklyn trio has been drooled over by magazines and hipsters alike, and their fanbase has been growing exponentially over the past two years, but for those who live in the more uncool locales that the inimitable singer Karen O has not yet conquered, it might be hard to figure out what the fuss is all about. After all, we’ve only had a small handful of Yeah Yeah Yeahs recordings to experience: one EP, a CD single, and the odd appearance on an indie compilation. Their self-titled EP, released in late 2001, was a sloppy, yet incendiary collection of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion-meets-art punk, with Karen O stealing the show with her pointed lyrics (“As a fuck, son, you suck”) and her shrill wails and howls that make her sound like Kathleen Hanna’s even snottier little sister. 2002’s Machine single, on the other hand, was a throwaway, a brief exercise in artsy pretension that hinted perhaps the bloom might be off the rose. What The Yeah Yeah Yeahs knew all this time that the rest of us didn’t was, they already had an ace up their sleeves.
Recorded before the band signed with Interscope Records, Fever to Tell is a major step forward, a confident, thunderous, piece of raw rock ‘n’ roll that steers the listeners in one direction, only to pull the rug out from under them two thirds of the way through, and take things in a completely different direction. Each member of the trio ups the ante on this album: Karen O’s singing proves to be much more versatile than the early releases indicate, guitarist Nick Zinner incorporates myriad influences into a sound that now borders on virtuosic, and drummer Brian Chase gives us some of the most powerful sounding garage rock drumming we’ve heard in a long time. It’s a sound so raucous, so energized, it makes The White Stripes’ Elephant sound one-dimensional in comparison.
The contributions by all three members are at times stunning, and are meshed perfectly by mixer extraordinaire Alan Moulder, in what has to be an indie rock match made in heaven. Although Karen shows some surprising versatility in her singing, the real revelation is Zinner’s jaw-dropping guitar work, which is superbly performed and recorded (after all, Moulder engineered My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless), as well as the sound of Chase’s drums, which is so full and booming, that you hardly notice the absence of bass guitar. There’s no better example of that drum sound than “Date With a Night”, as Chase churns out the beats at a frantic pace, daring Karen and Zinner to put even more effort into their performances, which they do.
The first six songs on Fever to Tell are pretty much what you’d expect from The Yeah Yeah Yeahs: there’s the ferocious commentary by Ms. O (“Rich”), some slick blends of new wave and punk (“Date With a Night”), off-kilter noise pop (“Man”), near-orgasmic shrieking (“Tick”), and plenty of blues-tinged punk that would make Jon Spencer proud (“Black Tongue”). It makes for 15 minutes of brutally exhilarating music, but despite the brief length of the tunes, you start to feel a sense of monotony creeping in halfway through the album. However, three minutes into the White Stripes-ish “No No No”, the song immediately stops, and seconds later, a coda consisting of vocal and guitar effects, some dub-like drumming, and plenty of techno knob-twiddling goes on for two minutes, which, in a way, signals the end of the rawk and the beginning of the real music.
If the first two thirds of the album serve as a perfect summation of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ early sound, the final four songs (including the one hidden track) show us the direction the band seems intent on heading in. The first six or seven songs have the cojones, but these last four tracks have the heart. On “Y Control”, over a deceptively bouncy beat, Zinner recreates some of the gloriously ragged, noisy-yet-soulful guitar sounds that Kurt Cobain excelled at a decade ago, while Karen matches Zinner with her own bittersweet words (“I wish I could buy back the woman you stole”). “Modern Romance” is the closest thing to a ballad on the album, as the entire band give restrained, low-key performances, as producer David Andrew Sitek adds wispy swirls of overdubbed backwards guitar by Zinner over the drowsy accompaniment, and Karen sings forlornly, “I was wrong/It never lasts/There is no modern romance.”
The album reaches its peak on the astonishing “Maps”, where Zinner’s lithe guitar playing, Chase’s beats, and Karen’s sensitive singing are assembled into an emotionally charged, rip-your-heart-out, cry-yourself-to-sleep, punk-pop gem. As Zinner supplies layers of chiming, Kevin Shields-inspired guitar harmonies, Karen sings lyrics that are simple and succinct, yet soulful, saying all that needs to be said, in a voice that displays a sensitivity we haven’t heard from her before: “Pack up, don’t stray…Wait/They don’t love you like I love you.” It’s a song of unadulterated beauty, one of the finest we’ll hear all year.
Cynics might complain that Fever to Tell is uneven and has the odd mis-step here and there, but despite its muddled middle section, it’s near impossible not to like an album like this one. Like their fellow New York area bands The Strokes and The Walkmen, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have crafted yet another accomplished first album, but theirs is the best-produced and the most promising of the bunch, and the band shows that they’re not only ready to transcend all the hype that’s been building up; they’ve already started.