Sexed-up new EP from New York threesome...
The bumping of uglies. The beast with two backs. All that idealistic stuff that gets written about youthful rebellion and wide-eyed escapism, that’s all well and good, but they’re just happy coincidental offshoots of the main attraction. Entwined like two near-strangers gracing an unmade bed after one too many pints of snakebite on a Saturday night, rock’n’roll and fornication comprise the longest, most complicated, metaphorical one-night stand in history. You can trace it right back to the primal, plaintive howls of long-dead bluesmen like Lead Belly and his green-eyed, accusative take on ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’, through to stuffy 1950s housewives shielding pubescent eyes from Elvis’ curled lip and elastic hips, and follow it right up to Johnny Borrell mincing around on a stage wearing only baby oil and a pair of jeans so tight they’d bring a tear to a glass eye.
Yet, while we may have just namechecked three blokes, it’s the females who most innately understand this connection. And none of them understand it as well as Karen O. From the first jerkily formed moments of ‘Bang’ and its genius riposte of “As a fuck, son, you suck”, onwards, YYYs have always been synonymous with sex. Sure, there’s been the odd flash of tearful vulnerability – ‘Maps’ and ‘Cheated Hearts’ spring to mind – but when push comes to shag, they know what they are, you know what they are, and we all love them for it.
This surprise five-track EP, however, written and recorded during a ‘turbulent’ time in the band’s career (given the melodrama that surrounded the making of their first two albums, when is there not a turbulent time for them?), takes it all back to formula. From the thunderous, swaggering drums that announce the arrival of ‘Rockers To Swallow’ – all impassioned martial-arts yelping, harmonic squeals and a truly terrifying four-note guitar riff that sounds like the end of days – it’s clear that ‘Is Is’ (a sly nod to the Egyptian goddess whose name translates as ‘Female Of Flesh’) is bereft of ‘Show Your Bones” softer
sensibilities, and more concerned with the filth and fury of the band’s eponymous 2001 debut EP. It may be rawer than an open wound and crazier than a crate of stoats, but you’d still take it home at the end of the night.
This, however, is only the beginning. ‘Down Boy’ begins all meditative, with Karen’s cracked voice drawing you seductively closer before erupting in a flurry of industrial drumming and guitars that sound like a giant conveyor belt inching the world’s largest sexbot ever closer to completion. Ambiguously casting herself as the guilt-ridden third wheel in a dishonest relationship by cooing about “Washing the stains off his bed/Not to split them up”, O manages to make you feel genuine empathy, but it’s Nick Zinner and Brian Chase who make you want to tear up the nearest dancefloor.
The rest of ‘Is Is’ falls some way short of the absolute brilliance of its opening salvo, but then, the standards are pretty fucking high. The predatory ‘Kiss, Kiss’ rattles along on a current of tense guitars and coy debauchery. It has an undeniable charm, and is perhaps the most instantly memorable song here, but repeat listens don’t hold up too well and it starts to sound a bit by-the-numbers.
The hypnotic,eastern-flavoured title track, meanwhile, might get a little lost in its own repetitiveness (it’s essentially one weird, sitar-aping riff repeated for four minutes), but what you have to take into account is that these offcuts (most of these songs were written during the band’s ‘Fever To Tell’ tour back in 2004) are still better than most bands’ first-choice picks. And anyway, ’10 X 10”s Muse-esque fretboard histrionics, nagging melody and eerie tale of stolen wives, stolen knives and foul play afoot – “Ten by 10, three by three, was the house that buried me/Did I really drown?” – is so obviously classic YYYs, you forget the brief blip before it. Built around jerking slabs of distorted riffage that sounds like the notes are being torn from the strings against their will, it’s a spookily atmospheric, darkly sexy thrill ride that wraps everything up in a paradoxically satifsfying unhappy ending.
Given when these songs were recorded, it’s hard to gauge ‘Is Is”s importance to Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ future development. But what isn’t difficult is to recognise YYYs’ position as the most exciting, visceral band to have come out of the early-noughties New York scene that bred them. If ‘Show Your Bones’ was Karen and company emerging, butterly-like, from their noisy cocoon of grot’n’grime-splattered rock’n’roll into something approaching commerciality, then ‘Is Is’ is a stylistic regression, but it’s a fascinating one. This EP titillates before leaving you wanting more; just how it should be. What will the third album sound like? ‘Is Is’ offers no concrete answers, but what is certain is our dalliance with Yeah Yeah Yeahs will be more than a transitory fumble and a cab fare home in the morning.