Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Show Your Bones
By Sean Ford | 6 April 2006
In most cases, New York hype overwhelms substance. For this reason, it’s pretty easy to see why so many people have such an odd, vicious hatred for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They’re photographed too often. They’re too fashionable. Drummer Brian Chase is prone to discussing post-modernism and ”Art” in interviews and Nick Zinner’s hair is a sub-culture unto itself. And—albeit with those criteria it isn’t all that tough—their lead singer is by far the dickswingingest, most cocksure member of the band. And therefore—despite Chase’s and Zinner’s criteria—potentially the most annoying member of the band. For most listeners, the make or break aspect of team YYY is the willingness to buy into O’s wild mood swings, appreciate her half-DIY/half-haute couture leotards, and enjoy her pervasive, manic stage presence. But a funny thing happened to Karen on the way to “Maps”—she learned the meaning of restraint (at least with her vocals, still working on the wardrobe). Known for her screeching, shrieking and screaming, it was a seismic shock that she could belt out a Kelly Clarkson/Ted Leo/Arcade Fire-worthy ballad, or the Pat Benatar-style anthem “Y Control.” Don’t even mention the undulating horror-FX-pop of “no no no.”
The first half of Fever to Tell sucked. The second half is 2003’s best little collection of secret songs. It showed O willing to bare her soul, perhaps the result of a too-talked-about relationship with Liars front-man Angus Andrew, or maybe it was just the result of a natural song-writing maturation. Whatever the case, Karen O has continued that development on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ much-anticipated follow-up, Show Your Bones. The album delivers on O-Hynde comparisons, features musical development that further distances the YYYs from their prickly, shrieky days, and stands as one of the only sophomore albums from the much-lauded NYC class of ’01 to be worth its weight in hype.
Show Your Bones lies somewhere between break-up and bounce-pop. It never fully succumbs to either extreme, and often infuses O’s newfound vulnerability with familiar traces of her salty sneer. The lack of any real garage-rock residue will come as a disappointment to hardliners, but it was clear that that act was wearing thin on the last album. For the most part, the band has given itself over to its pop leanings, and it has resulted in their most mature, consistent effort to date. If the album lacks highs like “Maps” or “Y Control” (it doesn’t), it never descends to low points like “Tick” or “Black Tongue,” either.
“Gold Lion” starts the affair with a “We Will Rock You” drumbeat, joined by Zinner’s lightly strummed guitar and O’s intoning and typically-cryptic lyrics. As she sings, “Gold Lion’s gonna tell me the light is/ take our hands outta control/ now tell me what you saw/ tell me what you saw,” you realize it doesn’t really matter what the lyrics mean, just that you can imagine young folks in bars, college campuses and chaperoned high-school dances singing along and trying to hit Karen’s highs on the infectious “ooh ooh” chorus.
If she wasn’t before, Karen O has developed into a full-fledged rock singer. She doesn’t necessarily meet the Dylan-type mystical poet criteria, but she’s a gifted performer who has an ability to deliver an “ooh” that carries just as much, if not more, meaning than some clunky Dylan-wannabe rhyming couplet. Once known for venturing over the top a little too often, here she is consistently on point and engaging: jubilant, melancholic, aggressive and infectious.
As catchy as O’s “ooh”-ing and Zinner’s explosive refrain are, “Gold Lion” features one of the slower beats in the YYYs catalogue and perfectly sets the stage for the Chase’s restrained, but excellent work on the rest of the record. “Way Out” allows Zinner to show his chops in a jangly-but-tight tune that recalls the Strokes songs that don’t suck. “Fancy” stands out as perhaps the only truly weak track on the album, Zinner going for an Incubus riff and O delivering a rare, uninspired performance. Meanwhile, “Phenomena” has pissed a lot of cool kids off due to O’s misappropriation of a rap lyric. Don’t be like the cool kids—the song features expert drumming, Zinner’s singular knack for seamlessly warping one riff into another, and O making the well-known lyric her own.
After “Phenomena,” strong songs follow inline as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs establish a previously-elusive consistency. “Honeybear” captures Karen O at her most exuberant. “Dudley,” pisses off the cool kids again (“OMG Karen O appropriates a nursery-rhyme melody, who does she think she is, Malkmus?!”), and is unavoidably catchy, again due to Zinner. “Cheated Hearts,” while not quite in the league of “Maps,” might be the album’s big hit. It leads with a repetitive riff that would surely have been plugged into a repeater pedal on the last album, but here it morphs into a stadium-sized anthemic melody, belying an increased self-assuredness on Zinner’s part. O’s lyrics suggest that she’s up to the riff as she asks “Am I bigger than the sound?” Chase and Zinner answer with an explosive, “not yet, honey.”
The already-impressive album ends with the best song that the band has recorded. “Turn Into” channels the emotion that builds carefully over the course of the album, and funnels it, cathartically, climaxing on at least three separate occasions. A light acoustic riff is joined by O intoning “I know, what I know” while Chase’s drums thud emphatically. That catchy concoction is joined by a humming electric guitar riff, then an aching piano crescendo which drops out for Zinner’s UFO-solo before coming back down for the final chorus. For all the emotional resosance assigned to the loverly “Maps,” “Turn Into” is a heart-rending masterpiece and a fitting end to album that comes close to delivering completely on whatever hype has shoveled onto the YYYs since the infamous EPs.
And, yet, for all of their developed songwriting and newfound pop sensibility, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs continue to exist in some sort of nexus: too arty for the mainstream, not arty enough for arty types. Of course, the people who are declaring the YYYs to be “over” now are the same folks who took a year or more to begrudgingly admit that, yeah, they did actually like Fever to Tell. But if indie rock is the “Indie Rock” brand now, Karen O and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs might be the only good “Indie Rock” indie rock band going, and one gets the feeling that they’ll be one of the few bands able to survive the inevitably pending band-brand-boredom. Whatever the case, with Show Your Bones, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have proven themselves worthy of the hype, and, more importantly, the excitement caused by an undeniably fantastic record.