erasing clouds

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever to Tell (Interscope Records)

reviewed by john wenzel

Fever to Tell exudes an unusual meatiness, a substantive quality that - having grown accustomed to the typically derivative nature of the Yeah Yeah Yeah's peers - is a bit alien. It's not that these guys are communicating in some unknown musical language - oftentimes lead singer Karen O is little more than a crude, faithful pastiche of new wave and punk clichés, and the technical aspects of the guitar playing wouldn't impress a first-year student of the instrument. But punk's never been about proficiency anyway.

It's more that these songs, to borrow an insipid truck-commercial slogan, seem built to last. Their expensive production and trendy accoutrements (echo-y snyths, double-tracked distortion, vocal filters) don't detract from the fact that they'd sound great performed by any band with a fondness for distortion and ripped fishnets.

"Rich" kicks it off with one of the aforementioned echo-synth riffs, a blurry, wild-eyed wake-up to those living under a rock the past couple years. It's catchy and melodic with just the right amount of sneer, immediately establishing the band's dark 'n sexy character. Karen O's come-hither-on-broken-glass chirp pulls the verse toward modest but solid drumming while booby-trapped guitars slo-mo crash in great slicing chunks, crushing the edges of the song with staggered chugga-chugga. It's a simple formula, and a frequently repeated one, but it works surprisingly well.

Songs like "Man," "Tick" and "Black Tongue" comprise the bulk of the album, exhibiting the bands' strengths (dangerously sexy vocals, furious rhythms, impassioned guitar skronk) and cementing their reputation as appealing misanthropes. The production is major-label enough to beg for radio play, but roughed-up enough to reveal the music's playfulness. The single "Pin" breaks from the expected crank-and-yelp with a lively melody-driven structure, while "No No No" (the band's reaction to themselves?) goes from a gallop to a stomp, dropping concrete slabs of guitar onto the metallic drums.

"Maps," a startlingly simple ballad perched on another synth line, should be the cornerstone of any good mix tape. O's beautiful, calm vocals - think PJ Harvey or a thinner Chrissie Hynde - communicate experience well beyond her years. "Y Control" follows, a pummeling shower of textured, Futureworld-era Trans Am riffs and should-be-off-key melodic interplay. "Modern Romance" is another violent (but not unwelcome) stylistic shift, slowly building from a skeletal riff and layering the band's patient contributions like sacrifices on an altar. A pointless but amusing hidden track rounds out the short disc, and PHEW, it's over. Didn't seem like 11 tracks, did it?

Blasted with an improbable quantity of white-hot and seemingly premature media exposure, Fever to Tell seemed ripe to implode under the pressure. The jaded hipster in me desperately wanted this album to fail, confirming my suspicions that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were as full of shit as the NYC hype-machine that produced them. Where's the underdog anymore? Why is anything remotely listenable labeled the New Salvation of Rock?

As cynically satisfying as it would have been, the album didn't suck. Much like The White Stripes' Elephant, this disc delivers the goods, expanding the dialog on neo-garage to include more than just greasy hair and a subscription to NME (I'm looking at you, Longwave and Interpol).

Fever to Tell is an exciting party album, the sound of New York's gathered strength and youthful irreverence. It's also full of concrete songwriting, in spite of its trendy superfluities like the absent bass player, the '70s/'80s influences and Karen O's burgeoning fashion icon status. Most importantly, it hints that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs aren't just loud and crazy in an entertaining and drug-addled way. They're a good band, a cohesive trio of performers that play to each others' strengths. It's impossible to say whether they will be remembered in 20, 30 or 50 years, but Fever to Tell certainly sounds like an album that will be.


Issue 14, August 2003 | next article

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