The backlash will not start here. Since The Village Voice has become the official fanzine of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, it would be sacrilege to turn on Karen O. & Company in these pages on the release of Fever to Tell, the band’s first real moment of reckoning. Let’s just get the pull quotes out of the way now, so the Interscope publicity department doesn’t have to read the whole 800 words, and can go back to mailing out mediocre emo-metal debuts and another couple million 50 Cent DVDs: “Thrilling!” “A raucous, erotic seizure captured on record!” “Fever to Tell is Pretenders, Surfer Rosa, and Rid of Me chucked at you like ninja stars, slicing open your jugular vein and cathartically decapitating you, propelling your head into garage-punk Valhalla and animating your blood-spurting body with an atomic tsunami of feedback-pumped riffs, enabling your corpse to rock on eternally!” “Williamsburg property values, beware!”
Even if some of that is true, the Y3s, formed just two and a half years ago, have the advantage of being one of the youngest groups to burst from behind the Vines, Strokes, Hives, and White Stripes. That is to say, this company doesn’t make the product, they make it better. Guitarist Nick Zinner’s greatest advantage over his contemporaries is his complete lack of an attention span. For the Strokes, a hook is a whole song. Zinner gets bored with his output after four bars—jamming variations together and then crunching in other new patterns, as if playing Is This It sped up, two songs at a time. His riffs aren’t all equally ear-grabbing, but he conquers with excess and contrast, ducking and swerving so vigorously through the fuzz-bomb single “Date With a Night,” for example, that you’re guaranteed to groove on at least half of it. He’s as greedy for blues licks as disco rhythm-guitar scratching, punk wanking, surf picking, Frippertronics, Big Country bagpipes, and heavy metal bombast. Like Jon Spencer, whom he’s called the Y3s’ “personal trainer,” Zinner doesn’t distinguish between hooks and noise—but his approach is less mannered and overdubby, and even more urgent, than his supposed mentor’s. Five of the 11 songs on Fever clock in at or under 2:35, and most have the breathy agitation of an innocent scheduled for execution tomorrow morning.
That death-row inmate is lead singer Karen O. Reportedly the O stands for Ohm, suggesting she’s either a descendant of the German physicist who wrote the laws of conductivity and/or she’s spent her life living up to a surname that measures electrical current. If Zinner’s distorted hooks bloom from distraction, O’s lyrics and vocalizations burst out of manic impatience, part PJ Harvey and part Nina Hagen. Not for a nanosecond does O suffer fools, bad lays, or stupid people—especially not in the same person—and lyrics don’t mean as much to her as put-downs and animal cries. “Black Tongue” sports the catchiest vocal tic Fever has to offer: four “uh-huh” ‘s, followed by a shriek. In “Tick” she squeals, hoots, screams, and crows herself into a frenzy at someone—a potential lover? an old lady on line ahead of her at the DMV?—for the crime of hesitation.
Yell though she might, O’s angry and a woman, not an “angry woman.” There’s no outrage or thirst for vengeance in her flare-ups. Yet she could be the goddess that feminists have been praying for since Camille Paglia was still teething. O’s sexuality isn’t defiant, apologetic, or performatively coy; it’s just voracious. One way or another, she’s gonna getcha getcha getcha. (Even if you’re dead, according to “Black Tongue.”) She’s the type of woman who’d pick up a guy in a bar, get him pregnant, and deny everything when he filed a maternity suit. But except for the necrophilia and one incestuous insinuation, her vision of sex is surprisingly healthy—hence the band’s bunny-rabbit logo. “I like to sleep with him!” O shouts. “We’re gonna go go go!” But bedroom eyes nothing—she dares to intimidate her man financially. “I’m rich!” she announces. “I’ll take you out, boy!”
O’s investment braggadocio still plays ironically now, since we know the Y3s have yet to earn anything back on their buzz. Nevertheless, Fever to Tell has a heavy breakthrough burden, and expectations for the group, the record, and the entire “rock revival” trend could still fall on it if the White Stripes can’t keep shifting 126,000 units every week. For all the hype, the Strokes’ failure to crack a million in sales left the mainstream unrevolutionized, and wasn’t the point to invade Britney with feedback and institute punk-rock regime change? Fever doesn’t sound as much like it was recorded inside a toolbox as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs EP, but producer David Andrew Sitek has left its edges far too jagged to conquer the Mall of America. It doesn’t sound as slick as a new Nevermind, but then again neither does Elephant. So one never knows. If electric lady Ohm can’t get away with singing “Rich” onstage next year, we’ll have our answer.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 29, 2003