Rediscovering: The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever to Tell

Singles are always deceiving. Some albums, that’s a good thing, belying much more compelling deeper cuts. Some, you wish the band bothered more with their pop instincts. In any case, given that I picked up much of the Rediscovering pile based on the strength of a single or two, I’ve learned not to trust them.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Fever to Tell"

My copy of today’s record is actually one of the promo copies, not the retail version. As such, I’ll be treating this Rediscovering as if I’m back in 2003, working at some radio station and hearing this new wild punk band called the Yeah Yeah Yeahs for the first time. Will they disappoint? Let’s find out.

My previous experience, if any

Of course I’ve heard “Maps”. It’s pretty much the definitive indie love song, and definitely the one with the best drum beat. The emphasis on rhythm over melody keeps things bleepy and choppy rather than buttery smooth and cloying, itself a neat choice for the topic, but it’s Karen O’s vocals that sell this song. Shaky, shivery, downright emotional–whoever this song’s about, I hope they squeezed this girl afterwards. Gets me emotional sometimes. Still, given that it’s a punk album, I kinda knew I wasn’t in for an album full of “Maps”, but I like early 2000s punk stuff anyway. Was pulling for this one going in.

The history lesson

After the release of their self-titled EP, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were NYC’s hottest band, and labels were falling out of their suits to sign them. The mixture of Karen O’s stage presence and the huge, junky sound of their guitars and drums (no bass though) basically guaranteed they’d be top of the heap in the burgeoning garage punk scene. Of course, this being punk, the band was adamant about recording their first real definitive statement on their own terms, out of their own pocket. Certainly, it paid off.

Well?

Before I get into the review, dig some of these press lines in the insert:

Rolling Stone – The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are a punk-rock dream come true, three New York kids who have become international word-of-mouth sensations thanks to their ass-flattening righteous live shows.

NME – Karen O looks cooler then [sic] any Hollywood diva could in their stylist’s wildest nightmares. […] they’re a 21st century Blondie, made even wilder, more beautiful and extreme.

Village Voice – The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are the coolest band in the city right now. They’re so cool, this is, like, the 20th time this month this paper has written about them. […] Yeah, the barely year-old Brooklyn based trio are so cool, they act like they don’t even know it.

I don’t see it.

Much ado has been made about Karen O’s personality–and that personality gets in the way of every single one of the first five songs here. The thing I like about most more wild, yelpy vocalists is that they actually, you know, carry tunes. There’s times when this girl just fucking makes noises into the microphone, and they don’t come off as electrifying or cool so much as they do utterly ridiculous. The final chorus and outro of “Tick” shows exactly what I’m referring to. I started laughing on my first listen when I heard it.

When the stars align and the band has a neat (not just loud and angular) song and Karen actually sings along, they’re pretty good. “Cold Light” and “Y Control” are probably the two strongest of this ilk, and “Black Tongue” had this one neat line, “Boy, you just a stupid bitch/And girl, you just a no good dick”. It’s definitely catchy, but even here, she utterly ruins the song by going into these squeaking fits all through, especially towards the end. Why did no one reign this girl in?

If Fever to Tell was just a tiny bit more hooky, the songs were a little less fuck-off minute-and-a-half cool kid swill, I would be keeping it, but even with songs as short as these, I have a hard time remembering anything that actually happened in them. The band has kind of a neat sound, again, choppy and angular like all good New York punk is, but it’s so style over substance, so drenched in hype it doesn’t deserve, that you’re left high and dry when the incredibly short runtime of the record is over.

And that’s what pisses me off about Fever to Tell; there’s something very faint in here that I do like a lot, and the band does nothing with it. “Maps” is excellent, of course, but it’s “Modern Romance” that frustrates me the most thinking about it. The springy, echoing drone and Karen’s fatalistic lyrics is one of the strongest moments on the entire record. It’s a genuinely fantastic closer. I love that key shift in the middle; it’s so brief, it’s like the smallest glimmer of light that’s then pulled away from you when you remember you’re still stuck in your little pit. Disappointment in song form. A perfect metaphor for this record.

Are you keeping it?

Unfortunately not.

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