In Brief: An indie garage band goes electronic, with generally thrilling results.
In a former life, Yeah Yeah Yeahs were apparently a garage band. At least that’s what people tell me. I’d heard several snippets about the group here and there, but never actually heard their music until they appeared on Saturday Night Live last year. Not knowing what to expect, I was a bit surprised to find that they were doing dance music, deconstructed and built from the group up in a live setting, at least with their new single “Zero”, which brought out the personality of frontwoman Karen O in all of its freaky eccentricity. I wasn’t sure what to make of the group that night, and since their subsequent performance was of older single “Maps”, I didn’t have quite enough of a taste of their new stuff to really judge whether I’d be interested. But I filed their image away in my brain for a rainy day, and then a few months down the road, decided I could go for a nice slice of retro-dance-rock. So I picked up their 2009 album It’s Blitz! and gave it a whirl.
Turns out this band had traded the garage for the studio, taking advantage of the magic available to them to make the indie rock version of a glitzy dance/pop record that wasn’t overproduced, but that was definitely unexpected coming from their little corner of the music world. They’d start with drum grooves, slice them up into a loop worthy of a sweaty dance or a calm trance, riff on it a bit with the guitar, and then figure out where the vocal melodies belonged on top of that. In some ways, it’s still minimalist, depending on those three ingredients and little else. But occasionally, it’s a grand, layered production. What keeps it “indie” in ethos, if not in sound, is the group’s baffling commitment to abstraction. Each song, while setting a definite mood, seems to be made up of fragments of seemingly tangential thoughts that would sound almost absurd if just read as words on paper. But it’s what of those things where even when you don’t know what on Earth Karen O is singing, you know what she’s saying. There are moments of furious dancefloor dominance, and some surprising glimpses of fragility when the band decides to go the epic ballad route.
And that might be the one drawback to the album – there’s danceable stuff and there’s somber slow stuff, and a bit of whiplash going from one to the other. It’s Blitz! has a split personality, part kitsch and part melancholy. Part of this might be the lean & mean approach taken by the album – 10 songs, nothing that seems like filler, just put the best stuff you’ve gotta offer out there and leave the rest (presumably) for B-sides. Maybe it’s worth sacrificing the “flow” of an album a bit if it means the band won’t get mired down in mid-tempo shlock in the process. (What few tracks live in the nebulous space between the polar opposite moods don’t do a bad job of it.) It’s just that the high-energy beginning doesn’t lead you to expect a shift to mostly languid tempos by the end of the disc. I can’t gripe about this too much when the overall quality level is pretty high… it just feels at times like these songs don’t all belong on the same album. But when It’s Blitz! is hot, it’s an irresistible hot mess (and I mean that in the best way possible).
If you’re looking to dance your rear end off while indulging in a bit of domination/submission fantasy, then I guess this will be your go-to track for hitting the dance floor. The band glams it up as best they know how, laying down a killer bassline and ripping into it with energetic synthesizer lines that stare you right in the eye and dare you not to move. And Karen O is right in the thick of it with her oblique little come-ons, daring some nameless, faceless boy to “Get your leather on” and “Learn to hit the spot, get to know it in the dark”. You can interpret that however you like – I’m almost inclined to stay out of it and just enjoy the song at face value, because some of it’s suggestive and some of it’s just baffling (“Shake it like a ladder to the sun”? Don’t know what that means, but she sure sounds cool singing it.) A song that features a female vocalist hinting at the thrilling heights of ecstasy with her little vocal yelps and coos (just listen to how her excitement climbs at each mention of the word “climb”) would normally be on my “guilty pleasure” list, but I don’t even feel guilty about this one. It’s the bizarre nature of the words and the relentless rhythm that save it from sounding like your average gyrating Britney Spears type trying to tart it up a bit.
2. Heads Will Roll
Continuing with the role playing, Karen O will now play the role of the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland. “Off with your head, dance ’til you’re dead!” she cries gleefully, as the band slickly bounces their way through another irresistible dance track. This one might be even more furious in its energy than “Zero”, though it also takes these little melodic turns that remind me of bands who do the electronic thing full-time, like Garbage or Metric. Again, the song’s all a-flutter with zippy synths and buzzing bass, while Karen remains the energetic focal point with her barked orders and gasps of excitement. (“You’re all chrome”, she spits at one point. Is this a prediction that Google’s new browser will decapitate the competition?) The only reason I’d take any points away from this otherwise thrilling song is for the relative flatness of the pre-chorus, which is a bit one-note as Karen cries, “The men cry out, the girls cry out!” again and again. It’s high energy, but falls short of the hook value of the rest of the song – and hook value is everything as far as 80’s-influenced music is concerned.
3. Soft Shock
I’ve always viewed this track as transitional and had a tough time focusing on it as a good song in its own right. It’s not bad for the purpose that it serves, keeping the tempo in line with the first few songs while scaling back the energy level a tad to focus a little more on bouncy synthpop and less on furious dance-rock. Nick Zinner and Brian Chase still get into the thick of it with the guitars and drums (respectively) when this song hits its climax, but up until that point, it feels like it takes a bit of steam out of the album, with Karen’s vocal melodies only showing up in fragments and the production being a little too “rubbery” for my liking. This is the same complaint I often have about 80’s music despite liking the synthpop genre in principle, so those who enjoy that aesthetic may get more out of this. Karen’s voice shows its sweeter side a bit here once the lyrics start to flow a little more with the unnatural pauses that sort of kill the chorus. But this sort of thing will be done better later in the album.
The first slow song on It’s Blitz! is completely unlike what you might expect given the album’s track record so far. It’s definitely a ballad, as characterized by the epic sweep of its melody and the time it takes to fully get going, but it doesn’t quite fall into the same category as the ballads you might be used to from other synthpop groups. Brian Chase’s percussion is a big part of that unusual recipe, since you’d never expect the addictive “clackety-clack” sort of noise that he brings in to keep the beat just when the song needs its energy pumped up. It’s a mournful song in which Karen, seemingly on the verge of breaking herself, ponders the age-old problem that we will one day all become dust and pleas with us not to shed any tears when she drops dead (which, given the band’s economical approach to lyrics, is expressed “Skeleton me, love don’t cry” – and despite the ambiguity, these strike me as if they were some of the most powerful lyrics ever sung). The ebb and flow of this song is pure genius, as is the heroic synth melody that glides above it, and all of these elements combined make it feel like it would be appropriate for an Irish wake in the year 2025. (Or perhaps 1985. Your choice.)
5. Dull Life
Let’s say you knew this band in their former, garage-band life. At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Screw this synthesized crap, let’s rock!” And they’ve got your fix right here – at least, if you can hang on through the dark, sparse intro. Because they’re about to hit you with a highly danceable, but more purely organic, indie rock throwdown that oughta rattle your bones with its galloping rhythm and jumpy guitars. I love this sort of thing, because as fun as it is to play around with synthesizers, it’s also fun to see what happens when a band tries to recreate dance music with live instruments. Karen is almost taunting with her delicious shouts here, which comprise most of the verses once the song is going full throttle. And that chorus? Man, that thing will jump around in your head for days, mocking you with its accusations of lies and the ambiguous threat delivered from within the prison cell that is her heart: “The beast that I lie beneath is coming in!” Not sure what that means, but I’d be pretty scared right now if I weren’t so preoccupied bobbing my head to the rhythm.
6. Shame and Fortune
Another interesting dance/rock hybrid track follows, this time starting off subtle with a groove that feels monochromatic and even a little off-key at first, but which starts to make sense as the guitars finally join in with the relentless thump-thump-pow of the drums and synth bass. It’s rather minimal on lyrics (with the repeated line “All fortune on the floor” making up the bulk of them), but this one’s mostly here for the fun of noodling around on the guitar. I know it seems weird to visualize the melody of a guitar solo, but I get the letter “Z” in my head when listen to this song, because Nick Zinner spends a good chunk of it zig-zagging all over the place. It’s fun, in that funk-inspired, “Beat a single chord to death” sort of way.
This is one of the few songs on the album that doesn’t quite sit right with me – it might just be its placement in between songs that simmer more than they sizzle, or it might just be the relative sparseness of it, but now doesn’t feel like the right time for a piano ballad. Karen does her best to play it like a musicbox plinking out some old, forgotten memory, and she ups the drama queen quotient perhaps even more than “Skeletons”, adding just a few twists to the melody to give it a unique, melancholy stamp. But it feels more like the work of a solo artist than a band, since the drums and guitar are relegated to the supporting roles while a trembling string section provides much of the drama. The repetitive lyrics begging for a lover to stay also feel like the work of a lesser band. They’re a little too transparent. I guess even an oddball songwriter like Karen O deserves her moments of vulnerability, but I get the feeling she could be saying the same things in a more fascinatingly weird way than this.
8. Dragon Queen
So what’s this, exactly – electronic disco-funk? It’s an interesting blend of old and new, whatever it is, and the YYYs make it their own weird thing, with a fairly relaxed groove but just enough glitter on the guitars to make it easy to envision the disco ball reflecting patterns of light overhead. Once again, I’d describe the band’s approach as “economical” – even though it’s dance-oriented, it’s curiously minimalist when you really look at the ingredients – fuzzy bass in the background, just the right amount of synth sprinkled in without layering things too heavily, the occasional electronically manipulated vocal or grumbly bit of electric guitar, but you’re being slowly seduced rather than assaulted with heavy noise on all sides. Though it’s subtle, Tunde Adebimpe from TV on the Radio makes a guest appearance here to provide backing vocals, and if you know anything about his band, the stylistic approach on this song suddenly makes ten times more sense.
While the band might be petering out toward the end of the album in terms of the energy applied to their songs, this second attempt to bridge the gap between the danceable stuff and the ballads actually does a really good job of it. With its light, galloping rhythm and its completely un-cynical, romantic lyrics, the band aims to create the perfect pop song on their own terms, and they largely succeed. While I still don’t fully understand the talk of cinders and black heels and the start of the verses, there’s this sense of finally settling into a place of perfect comfort with someone you didn’t realize until now was totally in love with you, and it’s hard not to go “Awww…” at that realization if you’re a sap like I am. “Flow sweetly, hang heavy, you suddenly complete me”, Karen coos. The shimmering guitars and light synths move things along at a brisk pace, before the song gently slows to a halt with the cute whistling at the end. This would almost be an ideal track to end on, but nine tracks would be an awfully short album.
10. Little Shadow
The band saves its sparsest song for last, with the distant plucking of an acoustic guitar and Karen’s slow, timid vocals leading the way, and the song withholding any sense of release until a slow, marching drum beat breaks in partway through. I didn’t like this one at first – it seemed like more ambiance than actual song, and a bit of a flat way to close the album out, since this one remains somber throughout and doesn’t hit the emotional heights that “Skeletons” did. Given time, I’ve come to appreciate its sense of finality and acceptance, its eulogy to a person or pet or whoever that “little shadow” is that faithfully follows a person everywhere. There’s a quiet majesty to it that puts a slight lump in my throat when I think about who or what it might be referring to.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs have run the gamut of emotions on this album, from harsh and relentless commands to dance or die trying, all the way down to sweetly fragile expressions of love and devotion, and I have to credit the band for making both sides of their split personality work. Bridging the gap is the hard part for this trio – “Hysteric” pulls it off, but I can see them having a tough time putting out albums that flow well in the future if they can’t conquer the middle ground without resigning themselves to being “middle-of-the-road”, if that makes any sense at all. It’s a minor nitpick, though. I find myself spinning It’s Blitz! quite a lot because I’m in an energetic mood and those first few danceable tracks come to mind, and then I end up appreciating the comedown of the better slow songs and falling in line with their mood as well. What the YYYs may lack in verbosity, they make up for with their ability to pick a mood and go for broke with it. I appreciate them for that, and I’m curious now to see how these yin-and-yang moods may have played out on their older albums, before they went all synth-happy. Something tells me I won’t be able to use this album as a roadmap, but I’m OK with that.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Heads Will Roll $1
Soft Shock $.50
Dull Life $1.50
Shame and Fortune $1
Dragon Queen $1
Little Shadow $1.50
Karen O: Lead vocals, keyboards
Nick Zinner: Guitars, keyboards
Brian Chase: Drums
David Pajo: Guitars (tour only)
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.