Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Fever to Tell

(Interscope; 2003)

By Amir Nezar | 30 July 2003

You know what? I don’t give a shit about hype-storms. I just plain don’t read NME and Rolling Stone and Q and Spin. Of course, the stank from the hype over the Yeah Yeah Yeahs did manage to catch an unfortunate wind that reminded me that yeah, there was this band called the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and apparently they had a ringleader named Karen O, and apparently she was some crazy vocalist.

I felt enough of the heat from the firestorm raised over the few songs that YYY’s came dropped to finally decided that what the hell, for 9 bucks I’d pick up the CD.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are not great. They are not particularly good. They are passable/fine most times, irritating as fuck at others, and every once in a while they hit on a gem. And by heaven, there’s only one person responsible for their bad moments—her name is, of course, Karen O. Karen, she’s not about to half-ass anything. If she’s gonna rock, she’ll go all out. If she’s gonna wail, she’s gonna scream ‘til you hit the skip button and look for something that’s less aggravating. I don’t care how earnest she is or isn’t. You can only hear so much vocal chord thrashing before you feel like saying, “would you just CHILL THE FUCK OUT?”

Nick Zinner and Brian Chase, on the other hand, are the bedrock upon which the sky high attitude of their leader either crumples or shakes, or, every now and then, stands tall. The two of them give you nothing to complain about, only that you half-way wish they were involved more and not so impossibly overshadowed by the looming shadow of The Shrew. Zinner on guitars is often lethal, coupling jagged stabs with chord cascades and angular lines, while Chase adds the perfect amount of dynamic to most of his work to keep you noticing the oft-infectious beat against which O bangs her head. On “Date With the Night” he’s subdued but extremely effective, laying down a drumline that’s both danceable and detailed with precise cymbal taps that give it character. On “Maps” he’s flawless in his appropriateness, as is Zinner, and O has by now figured out she might want to follow the chill-out advice. Incidentally, Zinner did some work with the far superior group TV On the Radio; I suggest you check it out.

In fact, what’s so sad about this disc is exactly how glaringly obvious the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ strong points are, and how, for a good half of it, they manage to do just about everything else. Fever To Tell is littered with inconsistent throwaways like “Man” and “Black Tongue,” where Karen tries too hard and the boys try too little. But its occasional salvation unquestionably comes from those points where Karen’s affectations yield to the savvy instrumentation of her bandmates (in particular the super-dynamic work of Mr. Zinner), and (gasp!) to the delicate, raw vocal power that she’s capable of without bullshitting. When she’s collected, O is superb. On album highlight “Maps,” she actually admits “they don’t love you like I do.” Surrounded by the blaring sex everywhere on the album, the moment takes on a huge weight, and makes you wish there was more of this, and less posturing.

O needs to let the rocking out go more naturally. Zinner and Chase only need hold the fort, to be sure, even if they could use a little more involvement. In the end, what it comes down to is simply that O just sort of needs to catch up. But until that happens, Fever To Tell is too feverish for its own good, too inconsistent to even call itself a whole album, and is so busy posing in the mirror that it completely overlooks the rock-and-roll soul that might come out full throttle if the YYY’s would just let it. Here’s to hoping for (and I never thought I’d say it) maturation.