May 2006

Music

Turn around you weren’t invited

By Robert Forster
Turn around you weren’t invited
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ ‘Show Your Bones’

Karen O, Nick Zinner and Brian Chase are three good rock ’n’ roll names; they’re the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, another good rock ’n’ roll name. They are from New York, and in this age of the fractured take on the classic rock line-up, they make up a vocals–guitar–drums combo. It’s a hollow sound, giving each member room to scratch and howl their way around a downtown vision of garage rock. Show Your Bones, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ second album, comes a full three years on from the successful debut Fever to Tell, a recording that they stridently declared they have no intention of repeating.

 
From the 2001 release of its first EP, the band looked interesting: jumping out of a crowded pack, it laid out five songs that highlighted the potential lines of attack. Two songs particularly impressed: ‘Mystery Girl’, an outrageously catchy swamp blues about a woman “grown men came to see” with a B-movie past (They had found her under the sea / She said she came from cellblock three), and ‘Our Time’, a song of a grandeur and style they haven’t attempted since. Perhaps they got it too right the first time. It’s a tower of a melody, built on Phil Spector lines and driven by Jesus and Mary Chain ooze. It became an anthem, with its hook-line, “It’s the year to be hated”, working in reverse to thrust the band into the spotlight. They became famous quickly, and with Karen O’s personal designer Christian Joy in tow and Spike Jonze doing the videos, they had some calling foul with that most dreaded (and often empty) of insults, hype.

For those high on the band’s early recorded work, Fever to Tell was somewhat disappointing. In one of the most bizarre album sequencings ever, the three best songs were positioned last. The first eight appeared to be the band’s clearout of a backlog of spidery garage-rock numbers. There were some good tracks – ‘Rich‘ and ‘Date with the Night‘ – but as an opening salvo, it was strangely one-dimensional in light of the first EP. But ‘Maps’, the first of the album’s final three songs, was something else altogether. The band’s members have said, half jokingly, that they made Fever to Tell just to get this song down. ‘Maps’ is special; it’s like a great early Pretenders single. Splintered, icy guitar lines from Zinner, and Karen O dropping the grunge and cooing, “Oh say, say, say, wait, they don’t love you like I love you”: it’s a tender, dreamy stretch of a pop song. The last two tracks, ‘Y Control’ and ‘Modern Romance’ (plus a hidden song), followed the lead of ‘Maps’, taking the gothic-garage sound, slowing it and shooting it into post-punk territory. The verdict: this was a group to watch, one that either didn’t know its own strengths or was hip to the perversity of skewing expectations.

The band is a three-headed monster. Karen O is the attention-grabber. With her asymmetrical haircut and early ’80s trash-girl couture, she immediately inspired imitators on the street and on the stage. Her vocal style is a high yelp; as a performer and media creature she is totally engaging. Brian Chase, the drummer, is percussive and tight, playing straight when needed, flaying when drama is called for. He’s jazzy, and reminiscent in spirit and invention of that other great drummer without a bass player, John Densmore of The Doors. Nick Zinner may just be the star of the three. This boy can play guitar. He sticks rigidly to the song and he’s a sonic architect. He can do swoop-down like Rowland S Howard in Birthday Party mode. He can do early Cure/Siouxsie and the Banshees creepy jangle, and then blow it up stadium-size, like Billy Corgan. Rockabilly, rock, post-punk and eerie campfire strum are all in his repertoire. He’s already guesting on other artists’ tours and, to cap it off, he’s just published the almost obligatory I-have-arrived-as-a-rock-star set of photographs, I Hope You Are All Happy Now.

Changes are afoot on Show Your Bones, and they are rung in immediately. Tight acoustic strumming brings in the single ‘Gold Lion’. It’s pop, and it immediately jolts each band member into focus. Karen O’s voice is rich; the drums have lost the live-in-a-warehouse clang and are sitting more conventionally in the mix; Zinner’s excellent guitar work wraps up the package. With the acoustic-tinged ‘Way Out’ next, it’s a crisp beginning. It has one checking the album credits for the recording location (Brooklyn), for the feel here is Beck’s California. This rustic approach emerges full-blown towards the end of the album in ‘The Sweets’ and ‘Warrior’, both of which start with desolate acoustic strokes before flaring out with heavy electric guitar. You could call it dark folk.

It’s an odd album, and one that appeals far less than it should. All the vital ingredients seem to be in place: a three-year lay-off, a willingness to expand, a sense of adventure from a band that knows the workings of song construction. Perhaps it’s the wish to annihilate the past so absolutely that has led the group too far from what it does best. A minor identity crisis is posted in the sequencing: the album really begins on track five with ‘Honeybear’, which is the first in a smooth and logical run of songs that don’t seem forced in their ordering. The first four songs have agenda written all over them, robbing the whole album of a satisfying arc. After the opening two pop songs come the two heaviest cuts on the record, ‘Fancy’ and ‘Phenomena’, and they’re nasty pieces of work. Here, their earlier spiky art-rock takes on a more classic shape. Heart and Led Zeppelin are evoked in style, wattage and song trajectory – especially in ‘Phenomena’, which employs the Page–Plant trick of a slamming chorus followed by dream sequences and washes before crashing back hard on the chorus riff. But it’s questionable whether the rock spirit of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs is best channelled in these songs.

The finest numbers are those close in style to the band’s earlier work. ‘Honeybear’ leaps with exuberance. It’s as if the shackles have been kicked off and the group has relaxed into artful abandonment. “Turn around, you weren’t invited,” the song’s opening line, works as an ironic invitation to the album proper. (Until then, due to Karen O’s vocals being buried in the mix and her typically New York non-linear mash of lyrics, the only clear words on the album are the choruses of the first four songs.) ‘Mysteries’ is magnificent, going at two hundred miles an hour, with Karen O deploying her best lyric-trick of sliding in and out of a situation, giving just enough information to draw an emotional response amidst the whirlwind. This is the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in peak form; the band is strongest when it’s flying. The last song, ‘Turn Into’, does it as well. Like ‘Mysteries’, it seems to wind up and then explode with gorgeous melody, the band members galloping as one yet each still trying to be the first across the line.

The pop openers ‘Gold Lion’ and ‘Way Out’ show a path forward. The rock songs that follow don’t, but it’s still a genre that the group could master or mutate. This is a band of three very talented individuals; they may quickly make a better album than Show Your Bones. But until then the Yeah Yeah Yeahs will remain one of those unusual bands with a few killer songs on each record. The rest of the tracks, while not making you wonder how they came up with the good ones in the first place, leave you rather cold. That unpredictability will keep me listening to them. I suppose I could wait for the greatest hits but, knowing the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, they won’t put any of them on it.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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