by Michael Goldberg
Monday, April 28, 2003
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Perfect Album
Rock 'n' roll doesn't get any better than Fever to Tell.
Karen O of the New York trash-rock trio Yeah Yeah Yeahs leaves lots of room in her lyrics. Those lyrics are like idea fragments jotted down in the early morning when you're feeling things really intensely. They're like quick sketches most of what went on is not on the page. Sometimes they're Morse code transmissions. The message delivered as economically as possible still gets through.
Here's the first verse of "I'm Rich," which opens the group's debut album, Fever to Tell, and which comprises exactly two verses: "I'm rich/ Like a hot noise/ Rich rich rich/ I'll take you out boy/ So stuck up/ I wish you'd stick it to me/ Flesh ripped off." And then she lets out a long scream.
Her vocalizing is all attitude. It's a world-class performance. Every word delivered to convey attitude. First she's cool like nothing could faze her, but then she's suddenly in hurry. She's screaming; she's shouting; all at once she's telling a story. And then she's in the story.
"Karen O," the woman who fronts the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, is a "persona," or at least that's what Karen O herself says. So those lyrics aren't necessarily autobiographical. Rather, they're the words that O wants her rock 'n' roll persona to sing.
"When I started piecing together the persona of Karen O, I was trying to do it in the most, like, 'let's see how much I can get away with, and let's put something out there that's basically untouchable and a parody of itself, so people can't take it that seriously,'" O recently told journalist Jenny Tatone. "But everyone took it really seriously, and have been taking it very seriously."
That's not so surprising. I think we tend to take artists at face value. Great recordings often create the illusion that the singer is singing directly to us. It can feel like one-to-one communication. The more successful the illusion, the more we feel we "know" the artist. The last thing we want to know is that the artist is simply a dramatic persona.
"It's been this inner conflict," O told Tatone. "It changes the nature of the way I conceived it [my persona] in the beginning: to be really lighthearted and punk rock and party about it. And then everyone takes it with a lot of weight, and it's a conflict because it's like, 'Should I be taking it more seriously?' I don't think I could exist if I took it more seriously."
"I'm putting out a manipulative, deceptive persona," she continued. "I can't expect that much except that I hope people don't think, 'Well, that's how she is all the time and let's get a piece of her.' That's what I'm afraid of, obviously of being consumed quick."
The "Karen O" character is a tough chick who doesn't take shit from no one. But she's also out of control. Her desires get the best of her at times. She's pissed off at the guys who ignore her, it bothers her. And if they'd pay attention, she'd be digging them instead of dissing them. Or maybe not. She gets let down, and when she does, she's vicious in her putdowns. As she sings during "Bang," the first song on the group's 2001 self-titled EP, "As a fuck son, you sucked.../ My skin tonight is a blazing/ But I don't think you're my type/ What I need tonight's the real thing/ I need the real thing tonight."
But she can also sing of the man she loves, as she does in "Man" off the new album: "I got a man who makes me wanna kill." "Karen O" personifies the passion and desire and intensity of sex (and sometimes even love too). And she can rage as only a woman scorned can rage. She pushes it all to the limit. Karen O is, in fact, a cartoon.
Fever to Tell is an amazing album. It's a blast of sex noise. It's all worked up and ready to explode. The guitar sounds are monumental. Guitarist Nick Zinner combines technique with raw punk power. Again and again across this 12-song album (there's one "hidden track") he hits the rock 'n' roll G-spot. What is already (for me at least) his trademark is his use of the guitar to create noisy shards of sound that become hooks due to repetition. Thus when O sings "Ride momma ride/ ride out the tide," those hunks of sound behind her create the illusion that sex is happening, right then and there. As he did on that EP opener, "Bang," Zinner reinvents a James Brown-by-way-of-Bowie's-"Fame" mutant funk riff, for the one-minute, 49-second "Man."
The music is all created by just Zinner and drummer Brian Chase. Chase, of course, keeps the rhythm when that's called for. But often his drumming is a counterpoint to Zinner's guitar work. They create a tension that is only intensified by O's singing, which ranges from desperate to demanding to orgasmic to spiteful. Her vocal performance on "Tick" may be as close to the rock 'n' roll version of fucking as you can get in a song.
"Rich," the album opener (whose first verse is quoted at the beginning of this column) is an absolutely perfect rock 'n' roll song. It's constructed so that it starts out with an unforgettable hook and then just keeps building and building. It begins with Zinner, alone, repeating a short riff utilizing a guitar sound that sounds vaguely like a cross between a calliope and a theremin. He keeps repeating the riff through the first half of the verse (joined by Chase, who provides minimal but essential drumming), then shifts to tough chords for the second half, and then hits it hard with raw power chords for the chorus.
The second verse begins, again, with that repeated opening riff, while a fully attitudinal O sings: "She slipped/ Down a rot drink/ Unzipped/ She doesn't exist." But this time for the second half (which is actually the first half of verse one) Zinner starts repeating one upper-register chord (which has the feel of a cool repeated funk chord in a great James Brown song) as O sings, "I'm rich/ Like a hot noise/ Rich rich rich? I'll take you out boy/ I'll take you out boy/ Hey!"
Then come the power chords, Chase's "stupid" drumming (so simple, so right!), and O moaning and then singing the chorus: "Turn it in no beat the walls are always speakin' no want no want no want no speakin' at all." And then Zinner delivers this mind-blowing eight-second noise solo like what is that? O begins to whisper "rich rich rich rich rich," before raising her voice but continuing to repeat "rich rich rich rich rich." And all at once: silence.