Often dismissed as gimmicky, fashion-focused hipsters when they first strutted onto the New York scene, few people in 2003 would have predicted that Yeah Yeah Yeahs would, 13 years on from their debut album, have one of the strongest and most dedicated fan bases around. God knows they love a party, so let’s take the occasion of Karen O’s 38th birthday to consider their output in a devoted, but ordinal fashion.
7. ‘Machine’ EP
Only three tracks, but this slight collection of ‘Fever To Tell’ outtakes is worth mentioning for the 70s cock-rock strut of ‘Graveyard’ and the taut title-track, as well as a deeply weird oceanic-sounding remix of ‘Pin’.
The band’s most recent effort marked the decade since their debut with a tribute to the city that birthed them. Demoed in a basement studio in Manhattan, it clamours with the sexy and threatening sounds of a city at night, like the shunting train carriages in ‘Subway’ the spookiest thing they’ve done, Karen’s voice a soft echo left reverberating around the tunnels “without my Metro card”. The falsetto-funkin’ gospel punkin’ stomp of lead track ‘Sacrilege’, the lead track proved, as always with the YYYs, something of a red herring to a very mixed catch of a record. It feels like a transitional album, in which, assisted by James Murphy, they’re growing into a new sound that isn’t quite fully formed yet. The title track is flailing poppy punk, like a funky, sexy Misfits, while ‘Under The Earth’ is a doomily, dubbily deep grind with a gospel backing and the sexy, stoned-sounding ‘Slave’ sports reggae touches. The range of the album is quite dizzying, and smooth sequencing has never been their strong point, so you swing from the distorted, dubsteppy vocal and flickering synths of ‘These Paths’ to the silly extraterrestrial monsterpunk of ‘Area 52’.
And yet the album is, for fans, still an intriguing and beguiling listen, with many of the soft, sweet moments that latter-day YYYs do so well. .Second single ’Despair’ is romantic and softly heartbeating, Karen cooing “My song is your song… your song is our song” as it grows into a big pounding declaration, successfully repeating the trick of ‘Show Your Bones’’ ‘Skeletons’. Best of all though, is ‘Wedding Song’, gauzey and gorgeous with romantic Curey guitar and Karen’s soft “hoo-ooos”. It’s not a perfect album, but it’s still plenty lovable, and suggests potential new directions for their next one.
5. ‘It’s Blitz’
In which the New York punk brats ditched guitars and went disco… sorta. I remember getting sent ‘Zero’ a little early to write it up for NME’s On Repeat page, and going absolutely off my head when I heard it. What an irresistible rush of a song, lyrically and musically all about that moment on the dancefloor where you feel like you’ve pogoed high enough to see into eternity. The rest of the album didn’t stick quite as close to the club. ‘Heads Will Roll’ is a Red Queen’s blitzkrieg of explosive synthery, Karen crying “off with her head!” in maniacally sexy fashion, while ‘Dull Life’ is a great Wild West barfight of a rollicking rocker. The softer side of ‘It’s Blitz’, though, moved further on from the more vulnerable moments of their previous album ‘Show Your Bones’ with ‘Soft Shock’ the sweetest of moments, undercut by graceful seesawing synths and the final coda of “What’s the time, what’s the place/Don’t leave me out”. It’s rivalled in beauty by the following song, ‘Skeletons’, a thing of gently whirring beauty that grows into a triumphant battle hymn. As for the gorgeous womb of light that is ‘Hysteric’, well, I have some friends that got married to it. It’s that sort of song. The quality control of the album, though, is a little uneven. ‘Shame And Fortune’, though dark and swirling, is not greatly engaging, while ‘Runaway’’s piano tinkling drags a little (though the ending is a thing of fraught drama) and closer ‘Little Dragon’ is extraneous, trying to repeat the trick of ‘Skeletons’ and ‘Hysteric’ but coming off cutesy.
4. ‘Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ EP
Often called the ‘Master’ EP because of the necklace seen on the cover, this punchy five-song up-yours gave the world the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in full effect, and also in the explosive ‘Bang’ the immortal line “As a fuck, son, you sucked”‘. Second in the NME’s singles of the year list for 2002, It’s as raw, scrappy and funk as art-punk gets, with ‘Mystery Girl’ a tribute to female power on a mythic level, Art Star a pisstake of New York gallery bores, Miles Away a mile-a-minute heart-race, and ‘Our Time’ a insouciant, defiant manifesto: It’ the year to be hated/So glad that we made it”.
3. ‘Is Is’ EP
Released in 2007 in between ‘Show Your Bones’ and ‘It’s Blitz’, the songs for this darkly glitzy EP were written in the fraught period between their debut and second albums, and they sound like it, with an extra dimension added by ‘It’s Blitz!’ producer Nick Launay’s dank, echoing spaces (the band were drawn to him by his work on PiL’s ‘Flowers Of Romance’ album. It’s intense, and heavy, but great fun too: long-time live track ‘Rockers To Swallow’ with its grating, itchy riff is schlockily horror-filled, while ‘Down Boy’ is romping, dark and glossy like being whipped with liquorice, and ‘Kiss Kiss’ is all pouty and stretched tight.
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2. Show Your Bones
Their second album saw the YYYs stretching into different colours. The dark, prowling sexiness of first single ‘Gold Lion’ (which I can’t hear without seeing Karen drawing her mic lead taut across outstretched arms in my mind) indicated a band that had moved on in terms of songwriting and structure. Indeed, they scrapped an album’s worth of material because it sounded too similar to their debut and started over to make this record, which has a fraught creativity to it, born of a dark, tense time in which the band nearly broke up. ‘Phenomena’, one of my favourite YYYs songs, a thrusting, strutting thing that takes a vocal riff on Melle Mel’s ‘White Lines (Don’t Do It)’is totally irresistible, as is the exuberant happy-’Maps’ of ‘Cheated Hearts’, (which while it’s not one of my favourites personally, is always huge live). But a lot of what ‘Show Your Bones’ does best is give Yeah Yeah Yeahs more emotional space in which to roam, via the roiliing dark lows of ‘Fancy’, the starkly soft underbelly of ‘Warrior’, flashing the heart behind Karen’s punk Amazon exoskeleton and the sorrowing acoustic beauty of ‘The Sweets’. It’s not as evenly paced as their debut ‘Fever To Tell’. ‘Honeybear’, for example, seems like a superfluous, YYYs by numbers thrashabout, while ‘Way Out’ is kinda forgettable. It was, however, a much better second album than anyone thought them capable of.
1. ‘Fever To Tell’
A classic come-out-fighting, scrappy blast of a debut. While the band have probably hit higher peaks on subsequent albums (‘Gold Lion’ or ‘Zero’ for instance), it’s the brilliant consistency of their first effort that brings it out on top. There’s not a duffer on it – the big-hitting singles like the rampaging, glitzy gutter-punk stomp of ‘Date With The Night’ and the melancholy manifesto of ‘Y Control’ are matched by the sassy shudder of ‘Cold Light’ and the raw bluesy yowl of ‘Man’. And ‘Maps’, well. That it’s overplayed, that it’s the Yeah Yeah Yeahs song for people who don’t really listen to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, that it’s on Rock Band for sad drunk women to bawl along to (guilty) well, none of that bollocks matters when that nervy, palpitating guitar line and those doomy, steel-yourself drums start up. I do believe, though, that one day Yeah Yeah Yeahs will make an album as complex as ‘Mosquito’ but as consistent as this one. They made it this far against the odds, after all. Who’s to say what they might not still do?