Karen O, frontwoman of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, explains the only weakness of the band’s new album “Show Your Bones” in “Cheated Hearts,” its best track: “Sometimes I think I’m bigger than the sound.” In 2003, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ full-length debut “Fever to Tell” stunned audiences everywhere with its arresting energy, artful ferocity and even, at times, surprising tenderness. But three years is a long time to wait for a follow-up record (Axl Rose notwithstanding), and the startling variety and sheer passion of “Fever to Tell” have cast a longer and longer shadow.
So what’s a quintessential New York City band to do? In this case, the answer seems to be a maturation of sound that sometimes suits well but as often makes for less passion — giving “Show Your Bones” moments of both pure brilliance and dull retreading.
This spotty nature indicates not a sophomore slump but a realignment of vision. 2003’s Yeah Yeah Yeahs were hungry for success and for music and for life. Karen O’s vocals and Nick Zinner’s guitar often seemed deadlocked in a screeching contest, and drummer Brian Chase kept time insistently and sharply.
In contrast, the band heard on “Show Your Bones” is three years into an Interscope deal, and have, to an extent, cured the fever that once drove them. 2006 sees the Yeah Yeah Yeahs world-weary, but also wise. Leadoff track and single “Gold Lion” exemplifies this: the song certainly rocks, and how could it not, with Chase’s “We Will Rock You” drumbeat, Karen O’s best Tegan & Sara impression and Zinner’s guitar-solo riffs? But compared to, say, the viciously upbeat “Tick” from “Fever to Tell,” the song seems a bit formulaic.
This pattern continues through the first third of the album; the songs often sound like the razor-sharp art punk of the first half of “Fever to Tell,” but played at half-speed, or with the edges dulled; only the gleefully rough (and Grandmaster Flash-quoting) “Phenomena” does sufficient justice to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ earlier work.
The rest of “Show Your Bones” — beginning with the refreshingly vitriolic “Honeybear” — is far more accomplished, often sounding somewhat like the Strokes, in top form, recording the best breakup album since the Wrens’ “Meadowlands.” The highlight here is the touching “Cheated Hearts,” a song nearly as emotional and unforgettable as “Maps” that will burrow into listeners’ heads and live comfortably for weeks. The song begins with a single-note guitar line echoed by keyboards that manage to be epic but not grandiose, like a ten-times-subtler Electric Light Orchestra. The thumping bass drum is just quick enough to avoid the percussive dreariness elsewhere on the album, and Karen O’s gently wavering voice is at its moving best (and not without subtle wails of course). Perhaps most surprising are the sweet soprano “ooh, ooh”s that introduce another resonant guitar melody. Producer Squeak E. Clean (Spike Jonze’s brother) refrains from adding subtle tweaks (like the car alarm in “Gold Lion”) and lets the Yeah Yeah Yeahs do what they do best. The song simply shines.
The excellent “Dudley” and “Turn Into” nearly match “Cheated Hearts” but evoke any of a number of talented NYC bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and The National that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have influenced. Herein lies the trouble of waiting three years before releasing a new album — other, younger bands will beat a band to the punch. On “Fever to Tell” the Yeah Yeah Yeahs didn’t sound like anyone else; on “Show Your Bones” they sound like everyone else. The albums are fairly equally well-written (“Fever to Tell” has a slight edge) but distinctiveness is always worth extra points.
The best example of this problem is the admittedly single-worthy “Mysteries,” seemingly ripped wholesale from the Strokes’ playbook, with some Karen O screeching and guitar distortion thirty seconds from the end to cover the plagiarism. Nevertheless, the song is marvelous; even at the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ most derivative they can often outshine their sources.
Altogether the album is a slow burn but ultimately extraordinary. Just because “Show Your Bones” won’t grab you by the throat, as “Fever to Tell” often did, doesn’t mean that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have lost it. And just because the album isn’t as unique doesn’t mean that it won’t get blasted from car windows all summer.