Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Fever to Tell

Adrien Begrand

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.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Fever to Tell

Label: Interscope
US Release Date: 2003-04-29
UK Release Date: 2003-04-28

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.




By the Book

Jack Halberstam's 'Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire' (excerpt)

Enjoy this excerpt of Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire, wherein Jack Halberstam offers an alternative history of sexuality by tracing the ways in which wildness has been associated with queerness and queer bodies throughout the 20th century.

Jack Halberstam

Sotto Voce's 'Your Husband, the Governor' Is Beautifully Twisted DIY Indie Folk-rock

Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Gabos releases another odd, gorgeous home studio recording under the moniker Sotto Voce.


Numün's 'voyage au soleil' Is a Trippy, Ambient Ride and Ambitious Debut

Eclectic instrumental trio numün combine a wealth of influences to create a vibe that's both spacey and earthy on voyage au soleil.


L7's 'Smell the Magic' Is 30 and Packs a Feminist Punch

Abortion is under threat again, and there's a sex offender in the Oval Office. A fitting time, in short, to crank up the righteously angry vocals of feminist hard rock heavy hitters like L7.


Can Queer Studies Rescue American Universities?

Matt Brim's Poor Queer Studies underscores the impact of poorer disciplines and institutions, which often do more to translate and apply transformative intellectual ideas in the world than do their ivory-tower counterparts.


Jim White Offers a "Smart Ass Reply" (premiere)

Jesus and Alice Cooper are tighter than you think, but a young Jim White was taught to treat them as polar opposites. Then an eight-track saved his soul and maybe his life.


Ed Harcourt Paints From 'Monochrome to Colour'

British musician Ed Harcourt's instrumental music is full of turbulent swells and swirls that somehow maintain a dignified beauty on Monochrome to Colour.


West London's WheelUP Merges Broken Beat and Hip-Hop on "Stay For Long" (premiere)

West London producer WheelUP reached across the pond to Brint Story to bring some rapid-fire American hip-hop to his broken beat revival on "Stay For Long".


PM Picks Playlist 4: Stellie, The Brooks, Maude La​tour

Today's playlist features the premiere of Stellie's "Colours", some top-class funk from the Brooks, Berne's eco-conscious electropop, clever indie-pop from Maude Latour, Jaguar Jonze rocking the mic, and Meresha's "alien pop".


Plattetopia: The Prefabrication of Utopia in East Berlin

With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the licence to take a wrecking ball to its nightmare of repression. But there began the unwritten violence of Die Wende, the peaceful revolution that hides the Oedipal violence of one order killing another.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Electrosoul's Flõstate Find "Home Ground" on Stunning Song (premiere)

Flõstate are an electrosoul duo comprised of producer MKSTN and singer-songwriter Avery Florence that create a mesmerizing downtempo number with "Home Ground".


Orchestra Baobab Celebrate 50 Years with Vinyl of '​Specialist in All Styles'

As Orchestra Baobab turn 50, their comeback album Specialist in All Styles gets a vinyl reissue.


Hot Chip Stay Up for 'Late Night Tales'

Hot Chip's contribution to the perennial compilation project Late Night Tales is a mixed bag, but its high points are consistent with the band's excellence.


The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.


Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.


For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?


Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.