April 6, 2006

No No No!

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Let’s face it: New York art-punk trio the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are Karen O, their hyperactive, hypersexual lead singer. Despite the presence of guitarist Nick Zimmer and drummer Brian Chase, the band’s success has relied largely on Karen O’s own charisma. A ballsy combination of the punk rock stage theatrics of Siouxsie Sioux, the hard-lined, sex-kitten appeal of Blondie’s Deborah Harry, and the simple, straight-to-the-gut rock sensibilities of the Pretenders’ Chrissy Hynde, Karen O flaunted what she had with few apologies and a lot of sequins. Yet Karen O has had a hard time appearing more than just a coquettish stage performer. There was an inkling of hope that Karen O might shed her onstage persona with debut album Fever To Tell’s smash single, the subdued, graceful “Maps” (the single was so widely respected that German techno/house producer Ada did a dreamy pop cover on her 2004 album Blondie), but the YYYs’ latest album, Show Your Bones, attempts to continue the same line of success, with extremely disappointing results.

Show Your Bones has none of the loose-edged, art-punk noise of live show staple “Art Star.” Show Your Bones, a polished and tidy package, retains very little of the high-octane fervor that surrounded their first few releases. With producer Squeak E. Clean at the helm (Karen O guest sang on his track “Hello Tomorrow,” a music video directed by then-boyfriend auteur Spike Jones), Show Your Bones moves away from the DIY garage rock aesthetic and adds a barrage of sound effects, ranging from whistles, sirens, and laser beams (the buzzing sirens on the appropriately titled “Fancy” seem to beg for a weirdness factor, as if to counteract the album’s mainstream nature).

The problem with Show Your Bones is Karen O’s attempt to transform from a performance artist into a traditional singer-songwriter. In Karen’s attempt to become “mature,” the raw, oozing sexuality and bravado of early lyrics have been replaced by tepid songs about romantic love (on “Bang,” from the YYYs eponymous EP, Karen O croons “as a fuck, son, you sucked/ The bigger, the better/ Bang bang bang”).

Similarly, there are much less of Karen O’s trademark croons and squeals. Karen O tries valiantly to sing, with disastrous results. Closing track “Come Into,” (the Show Your Bones equivalent of “Y Control”), while saturated with soaring melodies, acoustic guitars, and shuffling percussion, sounds unnervingly like country. Karen O’s new nasal affectations are beyond annoying and borderline intolerable (especially the noticeable strain of her voice in “Honeybear” and her painfully out-of-tune caterwauling in both “Mysteries” and “Warrior”).

Show Your Bones is unabashedly direct with its varying influences, including contemporaries of the genre (the booming drums and processed vocals on “Fancy” recall the blues rock approach of The Kills). With major influences ranging from Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre (as in the squeaky delivery of “Way Out”) to The Strokes (the lo-fi, dirty guitar sound of “Mysteries”) to the Queens of the Stone Age (the pseudo-stoner vibe of “Fancy”), the YYYs have created a pastiche of sounds that remind us of many things but never exactly incite interest. Karen O’s offbeat persona seems to want to recall the menacing, feminist attitude of PJ Harvey (the damaged, furious “Dress” is a strong reference point), but never touches the peak of PJ Harvey’s intensity and authenticity.

Though Show Your Bones does have a fair amount of revved-up tracks, very few achieve the instant gratification of previous high-energy tracks like “Date With the Night” or “Miles Away.” The swaggering, herky-jerky movement and Karen O’s staccato phrasing of “Phenomena” has potential but never quite rises above its sludgy origins. The introspective “Dudley” fails to pick up where “Maps” left off, but its appropriation of a nursery rhyme in the context of a mature relationship is strangely appealing, especially in the startlingly beautiful bridge.

But you have to give them some credit: by surrounding themselves with a torrent of speculation and drama, such as rumors surrounding Karen O and Zinner’s falling out, the YYYs have scored a cover on Spin magazine (the sensational headline read “The Amazing New Album That Nearly Tore Them Apart!”) and fueled their notoriety and larger-than-life persona. First single “Gold Lion,” a prime example of Karen O’s cleaned up singing (minus some campy Gwen Stefani-esque vitriolic cooing), has already been remixed by superstar DJ/Producer Diplo.

But make no bones about it: Show Your Bones is not a sophomore slump, because, frankly, Fever To Tell really wasn’t that revolutionary either. A detailed homage to the preceding riot-grrl acts, Karen O has constructed a dynamic personality, but as she attempts seriousness, her lack of serious musical skills is glaringly apparent. Having opened for such seminal indie music bands as Sleater-Kinney and The Liars, the YYYs should be pushing the limits of their sound instead of wallowing in their own mediocrity and singer-songwriter ambitions. The most alarming part of this change is how it might affect the YYYs’ live performances. The towering myth of the YYYs is anchored by Karen O’s infamous histrionics and glam appeal, and it’s hard to imagine how Karen O will figure in her new, toned-down sensibility to her highly choreographed antics. On “Cheated Hearts,” Karen O chants “sometimes I think I’m bigger than the sound,” but it sounds like she doesn’t even believe it herself. Now, if Karen O doesn’t even get it, how can we be?

Archived article by Natasha Pickowicz