When presented as part of a media-based pop-culture blitz — in this case the scattershot garage scene of the new millennium — a holistically insignificant band can become a necessary, reactionary limb to the metaphorical body of an entire movement. Fans are encouraged to either care too much (resulting in unwarranted praise for middling poster boys like the Strokes) or care too little (a reality any of the thousand “undiscovered” garage rockers, many toiling for years without a safety-net trend to fall back on, could openly attest). The hype surrounding this New York trio could only enhance the disappointment when they inevitably failed at changing the world. But away from the machinations of Next Big Thing headlines, back in the real world where a little art-school punk group led by a panty-flashin’, pastie-wearin’, booze-swillin’ rabble rouser is nothing more than a healthy distraction from paying the bills, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are pretty damn good. No, they won’t change the world, but just try to ignore them.
When singer Karen O intones, “As a fuck, son, you suck,” just 30 seconds into “Bang,” the explosive first track on the band’s five-song debut, you know you’re headed into caustic yet familiar territory. The extensive list of irrefutable forbearers to O’s punk-chick mystique — Chrissie Hynde, Daisy Chainsaw’s Katie Jane Garside, Poly Styrene, Courtney Love, Polly Jean Harvey, the original “O,” Wendy O. Williams, just to skim the surface — doesn’t negate the New Jersey native’s own original flair (or the fact that she is just as much heir to the masculine mania of Iggy Pop and the Cramps’ Lux Interior as she is to the genre’s godmothers). Through much of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Karen is a breathless, screeching, amateurish mess, rolling in the rhythms of “Mystery Girl” and “Miles Away” like a drunk through broken glass — in other words, old-fashioned punk perfection. Drummer Brian Chase and guitarist Nick Zinner specialize in a meaty, drum-heavy attack that works well with both Karen’s death-metal roar (“Art Star”) and her occasionally modest sing-speak. Still, the chugging, blues-based rawk ‘n’ roll of Yeah Yeah Yeahs doesn’t match the group’s live abilities, nor does it fully explain the big bags o’ hype heaped on the trio. But this is nothing new to Karen: in “Our Time,” a moving rally cry that takes the structure of “Crimson and Clover” for a trip around a seedy neighborhood, she croons, “It’s the year to be hated / So glad that we made it,” smartly acknowledging the group’s inability to meet the high expectations but also their determination to try.
Biding more time until a proper full-length was ready, the Y3s released the three-song Machine. On the plus side, Chase and Zinner have more room to move, swerving from the distinct, syncopated hard rock of the title track to the retrobilly raunch of “Graveyard” to the studio trickery of “Pin (Remix).” On the negative side, the production (by the band and TV on the Radio’s David Andrew Sitek) reinforces the debut’s vocal-in-a-tin-can effect, leaving Karen more shrouded than shrieking.
The furor over the Y3s’ initial coming-out made their major-label arrival, Fever to Tell, anticlimactic, but the sheer quality of the 11 tracks (plus one hidden oddity) will surely stand the test of time. The crunchy cacophony, once again produced by Sitek, is alive and squirming in “Date With the Night,” an exceptionally danceable punk-rock rant, the head-banging “Pin” and … ah, hell, the entire first half of the disc is a glorious kick in the pants that shames any group still trying to sound like Joy Division. Sure, “Man” and “Tick” are all flash and burst without even a pretense of any build-up or resolution, but that’s a good thing. When they do string a tune out, like the grunge-y “No No No,” they resort to indulgent mid-song freak-outs that make you regret the “art” in their art-punk. Not that they can’t successfully bring it down a notch or two: the most resounding tracks on Fever to Tell capture some actual post-punk grandeur in Zinner’s ringing guitar and Karen’s subdued singing. Thus, the soaring, multi-textured “Maps” (an actual love song!) sounds like bottom-heavy U2, and the tempered “Y Control” could be nu-metal Siouxsie and the Banshees. Subtlety surprisingly suits them, but Karen is still most at ease as an instigator, crossing lines of gender and morality: “Boy, you’re just a stupid bitch / And girl, you’re just a no-good dick,” she squeals in “Black Tongue,” while in “Cold Light” she offers, “We can do it to each other / We’re like a sister and a brother.” Yeah, it’s a deplorable shock tactic. Yeah, it’s an obvious attention-getting device. Yeah, it works.