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The Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Fever To Tell

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Artist: The Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Album: Fever To Tell

Label: Interscope

Review date: May. 23, 2003

Sexual Illing

Sex and hype may be superficial and transparent, but they’re powerful nonetheless. Take Brooklynites Radio 4, for example. Supposedly purveyors of white-hot, dance-inflected punk, the band reveal themselves to be a limp assortment of balding hipsters in person, more akin to a Midwestern Fugazi cover band than rock’s great white hope. But the hyperbole of a few reviews finds Radio 4 playing to larger and larger audiences, leaving the rest of us to wonder if it’s possible for a band to succeed purely on the terms of its musical merit.

But…is that really what we want? Do we simply long for pure talent, unadulterated by fame, untainted by our lust? There are bands that possess a greatness inseparable from their hype, a whirl of conflicting, extreme emotions that only intensifies their power. Opinion gravitates both directions when discussing the Yeah Yeah Yeahs: either grandiose, overblown praise or withering dismissal. It’s easy to hate the band: Brooklyn-bred, a whiff of prep school about them, on magazine covers with only two EPs to their name. They’re the epitome of trashy chic, famous because they look like they should be.

However, if you experienced the Yeah Yeah Yeahs without the burden of hype, you might hear something quite different. Heard at a party, for example, with a few drinks inside, and the YYYs sound unbelievable: messy, loud, beautiful, and incredibly sexy. Sex is both why the YYYs succeed, and perhaps, where they might fail. Indeed, an opinion on the band probably depends on your threshold for O’s orgasmic yelps. When it works, with the band in full noise-punk throttle and Karen yelping maniacally above it all, the band is near impossible to resist. Such is the case on “Man”, from the band’s long-delayed/awaited full-length, Fever to Tell. Over a bracing, surging wave of guitar and shifting tempos, O wails “We’re all gonna burn in hell” like some kind of erotic promise. What makes many of the songs here intriguing (mostly to men) is the implicit menace contained in the carnal atmosphere. Karen O sounds like the kind of girl who’d take you home and give you the best sex of your life, then steal money from your wallet to get a cab home.

Once the sweat has dried from your brow, however, certain questions become impossible to ignore. Just like the beautiful punk girl you hopelessly loved in high school, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs depend on a one-way exchange of desire, one that potentially covers up other deficiencies. It’s entirely possible to hear much of Fever to Tell and come away feeling used, or just turned off. Yes, Karen is the perfect “rock chick”, equal parts Joan Jett and Kim Gordon, but does our lust justify the band? Does it mean they’re really that good? Occasionally, it feels like there’s a manipulation going on somewhere, a cloud of hype that obscures both the band’s actual virtues and its shortcomings.

If not for a handful of songs on the record, it would be possible, perhaps, to dismiss the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. There are two songs in particular, “Maps” and “Modern Romance”, that are striking diversions from the band’s usual sound. Both tracks are slower, more restrained, the morning-after response to the wild excitement of the rest of the album. “Maps”, in particular, is simply gorgeous, an aching lament for a lover who won’t come back. Karen O’s singing here is nothing short of remarkable, a beautiful, incredibly expressive voice. In “Modern Romance”, she just sounds exhausted by it all; after so many late nights, sometimes you just want someone to hold your hand. It’s this ability, to document both frantic sexual excitement and its potentially empty, hurtful consequences, that makes it difficult to ignore the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The ambivalence and wounded resignation of these two songs more than justifies the album, and it points to a future for the band that goes way beyond i-D magazine covers.

By Jason Dungan

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