The Yeah Yeah Yeahs may not have lead the garage rock revival, but their place at the forefront of a second wave of crushing guitar bands that took advantage of the genre’s renaissance in the early noughties, is unforgettable.
The year is 2003 and the rebirth of garage rock is in full swing. The Strokes, The White Stripes, and Interpol, amongst others, had all collectively turned their amps up to a point where audiences had no choice but to listen.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were born into this scene early, having supported The White Stripes in their first ever gig in 2001. From their infancy the trio commanded attention.
How could they not? With Karen O’s vivacious howls and ostentatious outfits already in place, along with Nick Zinners’ penetrating riffs and Brian Chase’s thrashing back beat, there was little escaping the New York band’s presence.
Even before the needle was allowed to hit the groove of their debut record, Fever To Tell, the trio had generated a deafening buzz with two EPs, 2002’s Machine and the introductory offering of their self-titled EP a year earlier.
Prior to the 2003 release of their debut full-length, Zinner expressed his frustration with the media hype in an interview with 4play. “It’s just become less and less about making music, which is what we’re doing, and more about people writing about other people, writing about us.”
Karen O also told Pitchfork in 2006, while promoting second album Show Your Bones, that the world-wide attention in their early years was “the biggest catalyst for us having an identity crisis back in the day, (we went from) being a band that didn’t take itself too seriously to having people all over the world take us seriously.” …more importantly Karen O’s all-encompassing stage presence had audiences raving. Ferocious and enthralling.
Along with the band’s irrefutable rock rhythms, the frontwoman herself gave the music press plenty to chew the fat over. Full name Karen Lee Orzolek, the singer generated media attention through her fashion, designed by friend Christian Joy, and being a strong new female lead singer among hoards of slick male counterparts more than played its part.
But more importantly O’s all-encompassing stage presence had audiences raving. Ferocious and enthralling, she was incredible on stage and with the all important music backbone supporting her, the band had generated so much buzz that many were expecting their debut record to fall flat from the shoulders of expectation.
As history shows though, anyone who had doubts about the longevity of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was ultimately proven wrong.
Fever To Tell‘s release was met with broad critical acclaim. NME gave the album 8/10 concluding that “Fever To Tell reveals the Yeah Yeah Yeahs mixing up the cheap thrills with a grander plan: to build something substantial and special that’ll last long after hormonal new wave has drifted out of fashion again.”
Rolling Stone also awarded the LP four stars, and while Pitchfork came to a 7.4 rating, the notorious picky site praised Zinner and Chase for providing “near faultless support,” but reasoned, “you can practically feel Karen O looking over her shoulder for approval with every faux-erotic squeal or disdainful shout.” Reviewer Eric Carr believing that “a number of these tracks fall flat entirely because of the knowing, brutal swagger they try so damn hard to affect.”
While the rawness of the trio’s debut is easily felt, behind much of Karen O’s ecstatic yelping is a woman deeply in love.
Or at least that’s what is portrayed throughout numerous songs on the record. When she isn’t sharing a few of her more obscure thoughts, such as on ‘Black Tongue’ (where she shrills, “Hot! We’re gonna keep it in the family”), she is expressing the deep connection she felt with her then-partner, Liars frontman Angus Andrews.
It’s a connection that isn’t displayed with cheap love struck clichés but with the bluntness that goes hand in hand with garage rock. “I got a man who makes me wanna kill,” declares the singer on ‘Man’, or as she confesses on ‘Poor Song’: “Baby I’m afraid of a lot of things/ but I ain’t afraid of loving you,” it’s clear where the inspiration of O’s lyrics have come from.
But out of the album’s 12 tracks (yes, that’s including hidden track, ‘Poor Song’), one has etched itself as the defining moment of Fever To Tell.
“Wait, they don’t love you like I love you,” serenades O as she drops the harsh tones of her voice on ‘Maps’.
The song is a rare moment of clarity in what is otherwise the boisterous rock affair that everyone had come to associate with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Nobody prior to the album’s release could have anticipated a softer, romantic like ‘Maps’ from the trio.
In an interview with Prefix Mag, Karen O describes the track as her and Zinner’s favourite of the LP. Speaking of the song’s formation she says:“We had just started touring a lot. There was a lot of emotional unrest going on.”
“The dirt was being kicked up and the water was getting really murky. It also had a lot to do with the fact that I just had fallen in love and settled down with someone,” she revealed.
Orzolek has since revealed to NME that the tears spilt during the video for the quintessential single were in fact real. “They were real tears. My boyfriend at the time was supposed to come to the shoot – he was three hours late and I was just about to leave for tour.”
“I didn’t think he was even going to come and this was the song that was written for him. He eventually showed up and I got myself in a real emotional state,” said the singer.
Clearly the sentimentality of ‘Maps’ was poignant enough to connected to audiences worldwide and was a huge attribution to making the band known to what has now become a rabid fan base.
The confessional love song is also what made Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ debut record a commercial success, the sales figures of which is estimated to be over a million copies sold worldwide.
Before the single was released, Fever To Tell may have been a highly regarded debut album, but it wasn’t until ‘Maps’ peaked at #26 in the UK charts that album sales started to pick up.
The song has since been voted as the best alternative rock love song by NME in 2009, while Pitchfork and Rolling Stone placed it as #6 and #7 respectively on their list of top 500 songs of the 2000s.
‘Y Control’ followed as the album’s fourth and final single, with ‘Pins’ and ‘Date With The Night’ preceding the release of Maps. While ‘Y Control’ failed to match the heights of its predecessor, the Spike Jonze directed video for the song caused controversy for its scenes of children carrying the body of a dead dog and later, portraying child mutilation.
The single’s success though is largely irrelevant, as by that time Fever To Tell had already peaked at #13 on the UK charts and #55 on the Billboard 200, while the New York Times had chosen it as its album of the year, cementing the hometown pride taken in the trio.
A Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Album eventually followed, although the band lost out to The White Stripes’ fourth LP, Elephant; come the end of the decade, the album had garnered a considerable legacy amongst critics and fans alike.
Once again, the American music press sang their praises, Rolling Stone and Pitchfork placed Fever To Tell at #28 and #24 respectively on their lists of best albums of the decade. NME also continued its love affair with the band, by deeming it the fifth best LP of the decade.
More important than the critical adulation, Fever To Tell – unlike most critically lauded debut albums – kept the trio in good stead for future releases.
The disintegration of Karen O and Andrew Angus’ relationship would become further inspiration for the singer’s lyrics on the band’s more refined sophomore release, Show Your Bones, which was critically just as well received as their debut (apart from the typical Pitchfork condemnation), but which charted even higher across the globe. While they may have begun as what Karen O described as “a really local fuck-all kinda band,” the trio took the rock world by storm.
While many had anticipated the thrashing art-punk sound of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ debut and by extension its follow-up, few could have seen the band’s disco synth direction coming on their third full length, 2009’s It’s Blitz. Both post-Fever To Tell records scored Grammy nominations in the same category as their debut, but fundamentally they demonstrated the combined immeasurable talents of the trio.
Now 10 years on from their first long plaer, the band have released their fourth studio album, Mosquito. Despite a return to rock territories closer to that of their first two records, the album is yet another progression for the band.
Mosquito once again flaunts their versatility with a gospel choir featured on ‘Sacrilege’, while a rap verse by Dr. Octagon is heard on ‘Buried Alive’. The LP maintains links to their origins without seeing the band bounded by their debut album, while it also reaffirms the three-piece’s relevancy and importance to the rock landscape.
Their first full-length offering was simply an introduction to a group that had a lot more to offer than just the initial hype and acclaim that was bestowed upon them. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs ultimately strayed from the trend set by their New York garage rock revival compatriots in Interpol and The Strokes; both bands failed to live up to the critical acclaim of their respective debut albums.
But the Yeah Yeah Yeahs maintained their reputation and continued to explore musical ground with considerable poise.
While they may have begun as what Karen O described as “a really local fuck-all kinda band,” the trio took the rock world by storm and their frontwoman became one of, if not the most, definitive rock singers of this century.
All things considered, that’s not bad for a band, who after just two EPs, were expected to be swallowed by the hype.
Mosquito is out now through Universal, read the Tone Deaf review here.