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Picks of the Past: Yeah Yeah Yeahs
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Picks of the Past: Yeah Yeah Yeahs

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Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Yeah Yeah Yeahs

If there were a Grammy for Best Band Name, then “Yeah Yeah Yeahs” would be a lock. Gawd, what a cool name. Of course, it just so happens that there IS a Grammy for Best Alternative Album, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs WERE nominated for it in 2003. They didn’t win, but at least it gave me an excuse to point out how much I like their name (I’m sure they’d all feel much better knowing that). New Yorkers have been enjoying Yeah Yeah Yeahs shows for a while now, and the New York Times said that they put out the best album of 2003. However, like most people, my first exposure to their music was earlier this year, when commercial radio finally started playing the single “Maps” from their full-length debut album Fever to Tell. Even L.A.’s Y-chromosome-obsessed KROQ stuck it in regular rotation, which is a testimonial to the song’s power. Yes, I used the word “power”: The song is a stunning homage to 1979-era Pretenders, and it stopped me in my tracks the first time I heard it. I recall thinking, “How could that not be Chrissie Hynde singing?!” (Even Chrissie’s hairdo is replicated on Karen O in the video.) But then, I found myself thinking that a lot when I finally listened to the whole CD – except the names kept changing. “How could that not be Exene? How could that not be Siouxsie Sioux?” And so forth. See, not only are Yeah Yeah Yeahs not like the Pretenders (“Maps” being just about as close as the band gets to a ballad), they’re not exactly like any of the bands evoked in their music; that’s the difference between “influenced by” and “ripoff of”. Yeah Yeah Yeahs consist of vocalist Karen O (whose very name is an inadvertent tribute to rock goddess Wendy O of the Plasmatics), drummer Brian Chase and guitarist Nick Zinner. That’s right, there is no bass in this band – kinda like fellow Grammy nominees White Stripes. Indeed, the first several tracks on Fever to Tell demonstrate the same kind of Southern-bar-band-meets-BritishInvasion sound that Jack White perfected; only now, it's been punked-out and kicked-up a few notches, Emeril-style. It’s great, if you like Southern bar-band rock, or live rock shows in general, yet it doesn’t seem to translate all that well to a 2004-era CD player. Still, “Rich”, the lead track, definitely has the chops to be a single, although whether that fits into the record company’s plans is unclear as of this writing. The deeper cuts on the album return us to the friendly environs of New York punk, and while it is familiar territory, the neighborhood got a whole lot better once Karen O moved in. What’s interesting is that the more restrained tracks are very successful in their own right. They may feel incongruous, but they’re not forced. The guitar part in “Y Control” echoes that in “Rich”, but the mood is the opposite, as Karen sings, I wish I could buy back / The woman you stole. And the

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1/26/2011

Picks of the Past: Yeah Yeah Yeahs
wonderfully stripped-down “Modern Romance” puts you right out of the mood, with Karen observing, Love is wrong / It never lasts / And there is no / Modern romance. Despite allegedly being formed as a joke (or perhaps because of it), this band sounds utterly solid. You can’t help but admire every one of Nick Zinner’s informed licks, or the way Karen O lets her voice descend into a rasp, or the way Brian Chase adds a fill right where it needs to be. It all sounds like expertly storyboarded chaos, and not because these people are phony or artificial, but simply because they all know what the hell they’re doing. This extends from the music to the persona of Karen O herself, a rock star who knows her audience, and always looks and dresses amazingly cool. Having said all that, I still feel that listening to a digital recreation of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ music is something of a wasted exercise. You just won’t get a whole lot from pushing the “play” button and hearing Fever to Tell come out of your speakers. That’s because Yeah Yeah Yeahs were created for the purpose of rocking you in a live venue; and listening to the CD only makes you wish you were ten feet from the stage in an overcrowded club, screaming out marriage proposals to Karen O, and hoping against hope that you will be the one baptized by the stream of beer she just spat into the crowd.

Brian Chase, Karen O, and Nick Zinner

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