Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Review: The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ It's Blitz

It’s easy to forget how life was before the information-saturated days of the internets. Those days, the only way to satisfy my anticipation of a new album was to physically go to the local music shop and check the racks. Unless a store had it together enough to display a dry-erase board with band/album names next to their release dates. Being left in the dark about the upcoming albums was excruciating, yet the gratification of untainted discovery was always well worth the wait.

Cut to the modern days, when music sites, blogs and message boards were all bracing me for the ominous horror of the next Yeah Yeah Yeahs album which features more electro-synth pop with dance beats and less iconic Nick Zinner guitars. Several sites had the lead song, “Zero”, available for streaming as evidence. Hell, even the entire album’s up for grabs a full two months before the intended release date.

The onslaught of warnings and rants resulted in my fully coming to terms with the “new sound” of Karen O and company going in so I absorbed the album with pleasing results. Still, I can’t help but wonder what my experience would’ve been like if I had hit PLAY on my iPod and dove into It’s Blitz completely fresh and unprepared. I imagine it could’ve been shocking, scary, surprising and deeply satisfying.

“Zero” is an appropriate lead-off since it features many of the elements that are the topic of controversy. Clearly synthesized beats open the track. But not a full 10 seconds passes before Karen’s recognizable voice eases to you into the rest of the album. Throughout the album, her voice is the trusted guide through their new landscape of sound. She has an unmistakable sound, however she manages to showcase it in many ways before the album’s end. Her trademark screeches and growls are kept to a minimum, replaced with girlish squeals and breathy whispers. It’s Blitz does a wonderful job of displaying how versatile and talented Karen O is, and not a one-trick wailer.

“Heads Will Roll” continues to pile on the evidence that detractors could turn to for how the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have abandoned their old sound for clean-cut dance beats. While it’s true that “Heads Will Roll” is the most purely dance song on the album, it’s easy to look back to songs like “Y-Control” or “Cheated Hearts” to prove that the band has always been dance-floor friendly.

Which is what the album ultimately tells us. While they traverse new territory, the group hasn’t lost the sensibilities that made them successful in the first place. Rather than recycle a known formula, they forge ahead and test new waters. Isn’t that what we all want out of bands? Critics (and bloggers) are in an easy position. A band tries something new and are detracted for forgetting what made them successful. Yet another band could release an album of similar material and be scoffed at for being stale or unimaginative. It’s hard to see many bands coming out of that minefield unscathed. Even the Beatles garnered head scratching and queer looks when their mustached faces appeared, singing the weird and un-fab “Strawberry Fields Forever”.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs certainly took their lumps as well. The aura of sophomore slump hung all over Show Your Bones, evident in the disappointing sales and lukewarm reviews. But after the initial shock, I grew to love that album as much as Fever to Tell. They didn’t replicate the raw, visceral ferocity of the debut album, but that possibly goes to show how special and great Fever to Tell was.

I applaud the band for not trying to recapture that moment in time. That doesn’t mean that the band can’t rock when they want to. Show Your Bones was full of bombastic moments, such as “Phenomena”, “Déjà Vu”, or even “Gold Lion” which deceptively grows into a beast of a song. People also forget that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ breakout hit was the soulfully quiet “Maps”. Show Your Bones stands apart from Fever to Tell in a relative manner that It’s Blitz is positioned from the two. Equidistant yet related, they each show a different side of this band and it’s impressive to hear.

I love how Karen O is able to let us into every aspect of her persona. She deftly glides from a fierce fire-breather to a fragile poet while keeping it genuine and uncontrived. I’m sure there’s much to dissect from the album cover and it’s implications but I’ll spare it in order to keep this review from mushrooming out of control.

I’ll come out and say that I listened to the leaked album in advance, but I have also bought the official digital and physical offering. The music industry may finally be figuring out how to cope in the world of illegal sharing by offering exclusive incentives such as live tracks on iTunes or b-sides on the actual physical specimen. That works out for me since I’ve always made it a point to buy the CDs and love hording rare and live songs. Those familiar with the brilliant acoustic rendition of “Gold Lion” or Karen’s Native Korean Rock wont be surprised by the bonus songs on the deluxe It’s Blitz version, but it might shed light for more casual fans.

“Zero” is obvious single material, “Heads Will Roll” and “Dull Life” will be popular, while “Little Shadow” and “Runaway” harkens back to the intimate and emotive “Maps” and “Warrior”. I personally love “Dragon Queen” for it’s sleek sexiness. The twinkling guitar is something I would’ve never expected from a band that created Fever to Tell, but that’s the point. The acoustic and orchestrated version of “Little Shadow” goes a little too far for me into the realm of mushy, bland soft-rock. But it’s a bonus song and a minor quibble to a fantastic album.

The track, “Shame and Fortune” was particularly interesting to me. It seemed to be the most direct response to the anticipated criticism. The song is composed of many “typical” YYYs tools: distorted, chugging guitars; Karen’s menacing vocals; and strong, rapid drumming from Brian. All this reinforces the message within the lyrics: Shame, it’s soft and same/Lose when I play your game/Come if you call my name/All the fortune on the floor. This band is obviously not interested in cashing in on their known commodity and that’s why I fucking love this band. I’ve said it before, this band embodies so much of what I loved about Nirvana: blisteringly loud, yet beautifully tender inside; unpredictable and a little bit crazy; and rebellious in a completely sincere manner.

I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Dragon Queen


jane said...

Thanks for this. I've been looking at a bunch of critical responses to this album and this is the most thorough review that really fits with how I feel about it.

Laoser said...

Thanks for reading!