Growing Old Under the Gun: Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever to Tell Turns 20
Looking back on the New York City trio’s best album
There are bands you love and follow unreservedly, allowing them some space to change and stretch what they mean to you a bit.
And there are bands who push your sweet spot’s every button for just a quick moment and move onto one thing after another after another that you just didn’t sign up for and you get off the bus quickly. The only consistent thing about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, for me, is that they have spent two decades oscillating between both. Their sound is both big (Karen O’s full-throated roar, Nick Zinner’s multiplying, effects-laden, one-man guitar) and small (thin low fidelity, Brian Chase’s drums always mixed to sound like Tinkertoys). They can be slight (early buzz-bin “Bang” end-jams at its peril for a third of its runtime), which they honor as a punk virtue (“Tick” and “Pin” are big favorites with barely enough words to quote or runtime to describe). Their biggest weakness is the amount of time they devote to slow dirges and midtempos (most of Show Your Bones, and in the last two decades I have still never managed to notice anything that happens in “Modern Romance”) except when it’s their very best songs (their signature “Maps,” of course, and I like “Hysteric” even better).
Their songcraft tends to evaporate unless they’re really pushy about this one being pop or that one being a big lighter-waver or that one being a tantrum. I was a true hater of last year’s decade-brewing reunion Cool It Down because it did none of those things. They just kept falling in love with big and slow, grandiose gestures without a ton happening beneath; it’s far and away their worst and emptiest album.
It made me feel a little less bad about always insisting they stick with punk though. 2013’s not-loved Mosquito was the kind of fun mess that half-loosened them up, they need more of that than an “aging gracefully” record by the people behind one of punk’s biggest ballads. I like 2007’s Is Is EP because it’s their only release to emulsify Karen’s vicious performances and Zinner exploring all that textured space at the same time throughout. That leaves their two best and biggest full-lengths: 2009’s fizzy, club-friendly It’s Blitz! and the album we’re celebrating, Fever to Tell, a snapshot of the brief moment when the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were more interested in rocking out than not.
Maybe one reason this band’s never been able to steal my heart is because even at their bracing best it feels like there’s not much to say. “Date With the Night,” Tick,” “Man” all slash and lacerate with a great frontwoman’s manic, stuttering energy with sparks flying from her sidemen, but Karen’s bangers rarely even center around a catch-slogan. One exception is “Black Tongue” with its fun “Boy you’re just a stupid bitch and girl you’re just a no-good dick,” and of course there’s “They don’t love you like I love you.” Zinner’s pedalboard really lights up for “Y Control” and the opening “Rich” with crackling electronic sustain, and Chase sounds unusually muscular propelling “Maps” to its fate as a millennial standard.
It’s a fun record with astoundingly dim production for a release Jimmy Iovine signed off on, and it’s fun to root for one of Sleater-Kinney’s former openers blowing up nationally (ditto Lizzo). As typical with YYYs releases, the cover art is atrocious, which is also kind of fun, in a zine-y way. I think they had a lot more to do with the “garage-rock revival” than the Vines did, partly because Tell sounds more like it was actually recorded in a garage than any of their available peers’ deliverables except maybe White Blood Cells, though that wasn’t major-labeled. I wish it sounded like more 20 years later, but it still captures plenty of lightning and hunger even when the compositions bleed together; I still have trouble telling “Black Tongue” from “No No No.”
VIDEO: Yeah Yeah Yeahs “Maps”
Nothing’s more (fever-to-) telling than the fact I saw the band on tour and they skipped “Tick” and “Pin” entirely (which would’ve taken up all of four minutes of the set) in favor of five muddier unreleased cuts I wouldn’t have recognized if they were released later. (Didn’t do my beloved “Mystery Girl” either, but I’m just being a bitc; it wasn’t on the release they were currently promoting.) I’d like to think I would’ve noticed white-hot b-side “Yeah! New York,” which I crave more these days than anything on the album proper. (Also telling.) Be Your Own Pet, the band I wanted the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to be, (which isn’t fair to either outfit) fulfilled every riff, one-liner, even every coherent breakup ballad that I could’ve wanted and burned out a lot faster in the late 2000s, with their own disappointing comeback single this year.
But I’m overintellectualizing lightning and hunger. Fever to Tell was a hit quick and dirty album — possibly the last one, come to think of it — with famously tender moments and a whole lot of fans who are thankful that they did a lot more than just punk and stuck around while some more intense peers burned out. (Give it up for The Hives, who made too many records after their astonishing ability to harness the Voidoids’ and the Buzzcocks’ tightness simultaneously just cracked them like an egg). The Yeah Yeah Yeahs cooled it down.
They seem like likable, talented people. I’d rather have all their half-remarkable discography in the world than none of it. I just don’t love them like you love them.
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