At the turn of the twenty-first century, the New York City music scene floated in a surfaceless orbit of samplers, shoegazers, and delay pedals. The city's guitars lay choked by a digital fog, or else they lay dustily forgotten. Then, in 2002, an unbridled five-song EP by an unknown band brought noise, sex, passion, and mayhem back to the stage and to the stereo. The band's name evoked the kid who knows that whoever's in charge is full of s**t -- "yeah, yeah, yeah" -- but it also rang with the affirmation of pure rock and roll: F**k yeah! The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' first full-length album, Fever to Tell, was simultaneously filthy, infectious, sloppy, and brilliant. You could dance to it, and you could probably die to it. "Maps" was nominated for a Grammy, and the record went gold in the UK. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs spawned a new breed of power trio. They work together as a single organism, but each member maintains their own personality and contributes their own strengths. Think of them as a three-piece Earth, Wind, and Fire. On second thought, it's probably better if you didn't do that. Brian Chase's drumming couldn't be tighter or more precise, even as the band descends into the pitch-dark caves of noise he frequents in his free-jazz spare time--and one can hear rigor and experiment behind even his simplest, no-frills (or -fills) rhythms. Nick Zinner's guitar pushes back--hard--against Chase's formalism, grounding the group in rock and roll at its ballsiest, dirtiest, and most shredly. His soaring, sometimes grinding lines are wires connecting Chase's drums to the psychologically kaleidoscopic vocals of Karen O, who, as the New Yorker has noted, would have been a success "had she appeared with nothing more than a microphone and a pair of maracas." The band developed an itchy and unshakeable aversion to repeating itself. It would have been easy enough to record another spastic, live-sounding garage album after the success of Fever, but their next full-length, 2007's Show Your Bones, added acoustic guitar and more serious compositions that picked up on the direction suggested by a song like "Maps." Rolling Stone called the record a "textural triumph," and the group honed their legendary stage performance -- one cannot understand the Yeah Yeah Yeahs without seeing Karen O writhing and thriving onstage. A handful of great songs that didn't make it onto Bones became tour staples (and fan favorites), and the band sat down with the celebrated PiL/Slits/Gang of Four producer Nick Launay to record 2007's EP Is Is. Last year, the Yeahs shook their Etch A Sketch® clean to start work on a new record with producers Dave Sitek and Nick Launay. "We usually go into these things totally blind," Karen O said. "We have no idea what's going to happen when we sit down." This empty page feeling was helped by geography: they began writing the record in the middle of a snowstorm, in a hundred-year-old barn in rural Massachusetts. "You looked out the window and it was just pastures and pastures of snow-covered fields," she said. Zinner had brought along a synthesizer to work with during the writing session, not expecting it to end up on the album. "That was an old keyboard I bought on eBay," he said. "Literally, it was the first day we were setting up, plugging things in. Ten minutes later, we'd written that song 'Skeletons.'" The song--and the whole record--have a new feeling of space and atmosphere that's unusual for the band. "Obviously, synths have been in rock music forever," Zinner says. "But to us it feels new, which is all we really care about--that excitement." It's Blitz! signals both a glance backward and a step forward for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Zinner's vintage Arp--the same model used on records by The Cars, Joy Division, and Kraftwerk--contributes atmospheric washes ("Skeletons"), disco wiggles ("Dance till you're dead!" Karen sings on "Heads Will Roll"), and New Wave melodrama ("Soft Shock"). The first single, "Zero," combines all these elements to create a dance-floor anthem that sings directly to the listener. "We've got a death grip on the adolescent way of feeling things," O said. That's something I'll never be able to shake in the music I write. It's almost feels like a John Hughes 80s movie." But acknowledging the past in this way doesn't sound make for a nostalgic-sounding album. "I think there's a cool stability reflected in this record," Brian Chase says. "It reflects our transformation, and how we've developed as people."
The cover of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' debut LP, 2003's Fever to Tell, set an early-decade benchmark for sheer ugliness, a deliberately heinous splatter of webbed blood, stabbed snakes, and flaming heads. The music was also confrontational, with lead singer Karen O following in the footsteps of countless riot grrls and righteous rock queens in crafting a persona of raw defiance and sexual menace.
Fast-forward six years, and a glance at the instantly iconic cover of the band's third full-length, It's Blitz!, tells you all you need to know about how far the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have come, from Fever to Tell through the middle-ground growing pains of 2006's Show Your Bones and up to today. A clean, simple image of a woman's hand bursting an egg-- it's no less powerful an indication of feminine strength and defiance than Fever's abrasive scrawl, yet it's miles and miles more subversive. It's also a fitting symbol for its music, taking familiar shapes and tools and recombining them in ways that are bracing and unexpected.
It's Blitz! is constructed from parts that by themselves aren't extraordinary-- in fact, many of them are quite banal, like the generic Franz-Bloc-Killers modern rock riff that propels "Dull Life" or the doomy one that drives "Shame and Fortune", sounding ripped straight off a late-period Smashing Pumpkins record. Much has been made of the album's heavy reliance on rock's eternal bugaboo, the synth, but often the synths are doing rock things rather than dance things, like on the buzzing, road-burning opener "Zero". Only two songs, "Heads Will Roll" and "Dragon Queen", deliver real disco backbeats.
With these unremarkable tools, however, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs still create great, compelling pop-rock, largely because of the way the songs themselves are organized, with conventional verse-chorus structures repeatedly eschewed in favor of detours, miniature grooves, and lengthy asides that produce the sensation of a band and a singer impulsively following their own emotional whims. Take the lovely, insinuating "Soft Shock", for instance-- it starts with tinkly keyboards and an Far East-sounding melody that builds to a refrain utilizing the words in the song's title, but it isn't the song's emotional climax, which is hidden until later, when Karen worriedly intones "what's the time, what's the day, gonna leave me?" Even more compositionally jarring are the slow, stretched-out set showcases "Skeletons" and "Runaway", the former taking a blippy little electro-ballad and then plopping martial drums and a melody that sounds taken from some Scottish battle hymn smack dab in the middle. In keeping with the arty tendencies that have blossomed within the band from the beginning, these songs often feel portioned out into passages or movements as opposed to flowing organically throughout.
With such an absence of easy signposts, we're especially apt to follow Karen wherever she goes, since she's our only hope for a guide. Yet she refuses to be a locus of explanation or control, keeping her lyrics generally vague and frequently losing herself in bursts of incomprehensible excitement or fervor. These fits and embellishments account for most of the best moments on the album-- the way she breathlessly pants "crying, crying, crying" on "Zero", or giddily draws out the last syllable of the line "a hundred years old" on "Dull Life", or how "Heads Will Roll" and "Dragon Queen" periodically dissipate into an inchoate softness.
The ninth song on Fever to Tell was "Maps", a fleeting glimpse of vulnerability on an album of gleeful scorn. On It's Blitz! that slot is occupied by "Hysteric", a song every bit as emotionally naked and immediately indelible as "Maps". Here though, it represents an island of piercing clarity and happy convention in a sea of bewilderment, impulse, and ecstasy.
— Joshua Love, March 26, 2009