New York

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs Are On Some Shit

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So…yeah (photo by Rebecca Smeyne)

Camille Dedero is going to be reviewing last night’s Yeah Yeah Yeahs show at Webster Hall for the Voice print edition, so I’m not going to review that show here. I still went, though; Ryan Dombal had an extra guest-list spot, and I wasn’t really trying to skip a chance to see one of my favorite bands when they’re reaching a really interesting and wide-open stage of their development. I thought maybe I’d be able to get a blog-entry out of the opening band, but no such luck. Tiny Masters of Today are one ten-year-old girl, one twelve-year-old boy who I thought was a girl until I Googled the band today, and one former drummer of the John Spencer Blues Explosion. They play rudimentary, straight-ahead pop-punk songs, sort of like Bratmobile except with no cussing and less blatant assholeism, and they were cute and all. But I kept imagining grisly stage-parents wildly gesturing at the kids from the wings. Maybe these kids are in this band because it’s what they really want to do, but it sure didn’t look that way: they stood stock-still onstage, not smiling, not appearing to be having any fun at all. And the practice of dressing little kids up in hipster-garb and pushing them out onstage, if that is indeed what’s happening here, doesn’t really seem all that different from the uber-creepy kiddie beauty-pageant circuit. Also: if a parent sends his kids out onstage to do an ironic cover of “Jump Around,” does their version retain the irony or does it become sincere somewhere along the way? Do twelve-year-olds even have the capacity to do ironic covers? I have no idea, but I do know that that kid can’t rap. And if Smoosh (or, for that matter, the Jackson 5 or Hanson) never weirded me out too badly, why should the Tiny Masters be any different? I don’t know. Whatever. Anyway: the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Before last night, I hadn’t seen the YYYs in four years. Back then, the band was all ragged chaos: Karen O ripping at her clothes and spitting beer all over herself, riffs dissolving into static noise and then eventually righting themselves, grooves building their foundations on some unsteady alien geometry. The band I saw last night was like a cleaned-up pop-theatre version of that old one. For one thing, Karen O spat water on herself instead of beer, and her Zorro mask and tinsel batwings had a demented Broadway showiness that was worlds beyond her old fashion-plate thing. The songs still spun off into chaos before eventually resolving back into recognizable shapes, but now that chaos is more completely integrated into the fabric of the songs themselves. Fever to Tell, the band’s first album, was mostly shrieky id-driven bash-pop; the tender love-jam “Maps” derived at least some of its beauty from its totally unexpected left-field globs of sentiment; it was one of the only sober, human songs on the whole messy record. But last year’s Show Your Bones found the band digging deep into pop-song formalism and Zeppelin-groove mythos; it wasn’t all comfortable or confident, but I really liked it anyway. Show Your Bones was anything but a logical continuation of Fever to Tell, and it was totally unclear where the band would go from there; one Spin cover story made a pretty convincing case that they’d probably break up before long. But Is Is, the band’s new EP, hints at a truly intriguing possibility. Maybe Fever to Tell and Show Your Bones simply mapped out the extreme parameters of the band’s sound, and maybe they’re still finding their footing, exploring the vast wide-open spaces between those borders. All of Is Is exists somewhere between the first album’s pummel and the second album’s throb, and all of it is better for it. The songs mostly aren’t songs as such; they’re collections of tics, riffs that seesaw into each other and vocal blurts and sighs coloring in the edges. I have no idea what Karen O is talking about all through it: “He’s got youth on his side / He’s got small purple eyes”? But that sense of mystery does wonders for the band, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that their sheer musical chemistry is reaching crazy new levels. Brian Chase is just a monster of a drummer; the single “Down Boy” has a clicky syncopation that you just never hear in indie-rock. Karen O sometimes descends into the tumult that Chase and Nick Zinner make, but I like her better when she floats above it, as she does on “Down Boy,” all airy murmur.

As for Nick Zinner: after the White Stripes’ Madison Square Garden show, I saw him walking around in the hallway, and I had to wonder what he was thinking. That night, Jack White had put on a clinic on how to pull titanic rockstar squalls from a guitar without falling back in rockstar cliches. But so was Zinner blown away like the rest of us, or was he thinking to himself that pssh he could do that? Zinner’s guitar heroics are totally different from White’s, but they’re similarly varied and masterful. Zinner’s swaggerstomp glam-riffs are great, but I like it better when he turns his guitar into a chirping cricket, filling up the songs with a high-pitched chatter that keeps them from ever comfortably setting into anything. Onstage, he looks like a total sideman (albeit a sideman with very complicated hair), totally content to cede the stage to Karen O’s hurricane of personality. But half the fun of this band’s records are hearing him forcing his weird noises into straight-up pop songs and actually finding ways for those noises to signify as pop. Zinner’s done time in noise-bands, and he’s also played session-musician to indie titans like Bright Eyes, but neither of those roles has resulted in much interesting music. In the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, though, he walks a really tight line between noise and pop, taking the marriage of the two forms to places that I haven’t heard anyone else even try. I hope this band doesn’t break up anytime soon because I really can’t wait to hear what they do next.

Voice review: Nick Catucci on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Show Your Bones
Voice review: James Hannaham on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever to Tell
Voice review: Amy Phillips on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at Brownie’s