by Michael Goldberg
Monday, February 18, 2002
The Trash Rock Of Yeah Yeah Yeahs
'It's our time to be hated' sing a New York punk trio.
The riff hits like James Brown funk via David Bowie's "Fame," as played by onetime Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton. This is, in one sense, the most minimal of rock 'n' roll: Just one guitar, drums and a vocalist with enough attitude to wither most of what passes for mainstream "rock." "So take a swallow as I spit," sings Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O, dismissively. "...I don't think you're my type."
Yeah Yeah Yeahs is a great name for a rock 'n' roll band, and if the New York trio's five-song self-titled EP (recorded at the appropriately named Funhouse studio) is any indication, they more than live up to it.
This band arrives in the wake of The Strokes. New York is, suddenly, a hot spot of underground rock. All it takes is one great band in the right place at the right time, and people start paying attention to the surrounding scene. Yeah Yeah Yeahs got written up in one of those "bands to watch" pieces in a recent Rolling Stone but don't hold that against them.
With The Strokes, and now Yeah Yeah Yeahs, it's hard not to recall 1975, when word began to drift West of NYC artists and bands such as Patti Smith, The Ramones, Television and Blondie that were tearing up the New York clubs mostly C.B.G.B.'s. And of course the early '80s, with the appearance of Sonic Youth, The Swans and a handful of other noisy combos.
Recalling NYC scenes of two and three decades ago draws attention to just how long it's been since New York had a rock thing going on that was worth getting excited about. The appearance of The Strokes' The Modern Age EP a year ago changed that. Merely three songs, it wasn't even an album. Yet you simply had to listen, and if you did, if you really listened, you knew that something new was finally happening in the city that had once been home to the Velvets and the Dolls, The Ramones and Richard Hell and the Voidoids.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O, guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase make art-punk, or trashy white R&B punk, or arty garage rock. All of the above. In other words, they make classic NYC rock 'n' roll.
The centerpiece of Yeah Yeah Yeahs is the opener, "Bang," the trash-funk number described in the first graph of this column. The song's structure is verse (the riff!), chorus, verse, chorus, and so on. If this isn't three-chord rock, it's close enough. Listen to it three or four times and it'll crowd out anything going on around you. Karen O is mesmerizing. You can hear most of what she's saying, but not all of it.
She has a thin voice, recorded so it sounds faintly distorted. She's putting down the guy she's singing to, but she's also after sex, and there's the suggestion that even though she's putting this guy down, that could just be part of her routine ("What I need tonight's the real thing," goes one line; "The bigger, the better," goes another). When she sings "yeah, yeah, yeah" and screams, she sounds in the throes of orgasm, only a stylized version she's not doing Donna Summer. As Sonic Youth once put it, "Confusion is sex."
The rest of the EP is nearly as good. "Mystery Girl" is set to a classic Chuck Berry rock rhythm with surf guitar lines. "The mystery boys will be your toys...," Karen O sings. Later: "She was a danger to herself...." And still later: "Take a deep breath baby we just started!" One minute she's singing about the "mystery girl," the next minute she's become her.
"Art Star" takes the piss out of the conceptual art scene. "I've been working on a piece that speaks of sex and desperation," is the spoken first line. "I've been screwing on the tracks of abandoned train stations." And then she lets loose with a horrific scream. The final track, "Our Time," is a kind of Sept. 11 anti-anthem. "It's the year to be hated," goes the lyric. "It's our time...," Karen O sings. A chorus answers, "Our time!" And Karen O finishes the line, "...to be hated."
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs EP was released last year on the group's own Shifty label (they've got a Web site, natch, at www.yeahyeahyeahs.com). It was produced by the band, and I bet it cost them around $500 to record. Like The Strokes' "The Modern Age" EP, this is the real thing. With more to come.