US - New York - Full Moon 81 - 05/16/03
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Fever To Tell
Now we know Jack White's "sister" Meg is really his ex-wife, there's a vacancy in the American
retro-rock pantheon for a new contender to the crown. Karen O of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs (and
incidentally, isn't that the best name for a rock'n'roll band you've heard in ages?) more than
fits the bill. Her upstart, destructive tendencies are shot right through Fever To Tell,
and make the case for the band as the perfect younger sister counterpart to the White Stripes'
comparatively earnest older brother. As Karen kicks and screams her way across this debut album's
first two thirds, you're reminded how your younger sister always got away with murder, and had
more fun doing so. You also remember that blistering pop-art sexmusic is way cooler than
chin-stroking blues revivalism.
There's nothing wrong with Elephant - the Stripes new album - it's just that Fever
To Tell makes it sound staid, plodding and conservative by comparison - like it was made by
a couple who can let go of their zimmer frames just about long enough to thrash out another 2
minute 2 chord wonder. The YYYs, who have been as feverishly adopted by the fashionistas as much
as the rock press, ironically come out looking far less studied, and far more instinctive, than
the Stripes and the Strokes, who have both often come across as a bit "concept first, music later".
Nothing wrong with that. (There's a whole other essay top be written on that one.) The YYYs are
no less fully stylistically realised, it's simply that their unforced, sexy, coruscating take on
the rock'n'roll template gets to the heart of that blueprint like nothing else in a long time.
Their sleaze just comes more naturally.
You can see antecedents in older bands like Boss Hogg, Royal Trux and others, but the YYYs
give you no time to think about that until "No No No" allows the listener pause for breath. Spacey,
dub effects transport the record (and the final 3 tracks) into a more contemplative place, as the
band show an ability to reign in the rage, slow down and turn their ugly-beautiful noise into a
soulful, redemptive thing. As final track "Modern Romance" arcs its neon-lit Manhattan soundscape,
it counterpoints perfectly the rest of the album as its post-coital, chemical comedown haze. Before
that, though, the first 7 or so tunes career around your brain like fireworks, gleefully immersing
band and listener in riotous shards of colour and light. They leave you breathless, as if you've
just spent a Saturday night with De Niro in Mean Streets, Johnny Boy tearing up the town;
the pursuit of hedonism its own justification and reward.
Opener "Rich" sets the tone, all angular and spiky, with guitars that sound alternately like
a car crunching into gear, and a jet plane blasting at your head. And sometimes like an iron glove
being scraped down a blackboard. Over that - Karen O grunting, yelping, descending into an
unintelligible scream. She does this a lot, along with sounding breathless, excited, imploring,
fearful. At the same time. Ever imagined how Iggy's cooler, little sister might sound? Here's
Check out her personification of on-the-town arrogance on the discopunk of "Date With The Night".
She makes the line, 'I've got a man who makes me wanna
kill' - from "Man" - sound like the biggest come-on.
'We're all gonna burn in hell' she continues, and you think, 'Count me in!' The chorus of
"Black Tongue" goes 'Aha. Aha. Aha. OW!' 4 times,
and like with all great, exact pop, it makes perfect sense. The profundity of gibberish is what
pop's based on, a codified roster of slang symbols you either get or you don't - you know precisely
where Little Richard's coming from when he sings Awopbobaloombopalopbamboom',
even though you've never cared the slightest what he means.
And that's what's great about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They sound utterly NOW, but fit right in
that long line of rock'n'roll it's virtually impossible to rationalise. Throw sense and reason
out the window, and go with it. Their style hits you in the gut, the feet and the groin, before
turning a nonchalant sneer at everything else. Their relish in the grubby underbelly of life
conversely makes them seem utterly unobtainable and desirable, their potential to lapse into pastiche
somehow always avoided by being wholly committed to the cause. They could have been a final nail
in the rock'n'roll coffin, but The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are full of lust, death and romance - a white
noise reminder of why you fell in love with pop music in the first place.
Copyright © 2003 James Caig