Music Review: The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' The Is Is

by Stephen Tringali

Everything the Yeah Yeah Yeahs recorded on their debut album, Fever To Tell, made the firm declaration that this band had neither lofty ambitions nor desire to pen anything not involving Karen O’s disaffected squeals and Nick Zinner’s super-charged post-punk guitar chords — except maybe that single of theirs, “Maps.”

The band’s latest release, an EP entitled The Is Is (on Interscope Records), should draw much attention to itself — first, because its songs were written during the Fever To Tell tour and, second, because its songs sound nothing like those on Fever To Tell.

One can only wonder what these tracks might have sounded like had they been recorded immediately following that tour. One thing’s for sure, though: if they had been recorded earlier in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ history, they wouldn’t have sounded this good.

That's not to suggest that the first Yeah Yeah Yeahs' album is bad. It’s a good listen, once in a while. But there’s undeniable proof that the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs are an improved band — an uneasy, ever-shifting trio of post-punkers who have shown an increasingly competent understanding of melody, song dynamics, and dramatic construction.

Karen O (full name: Karen Lee Orzolek) seems more determined to vary her vocal presence, especially on “Down Boy.” Over haunting organ and a techno drumbeat, she croons softly: "I’ll stand kind of pushed / kind of bent / on this heavy land / I stand for the sake of my friend / I will see him there.” Her scream that follows announces the song’s chorus but quickly fades to its original calm: “Down / Down / Count me Down."

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs continue to push in other directions on the EP. “Isis” explores the capability of one band’s minimalist aspirations to communicate on an epic scale. Its stadium rock-style drumming and its hip, Western guitar lick set expectations for the next Yeah Yeah Yeahs album at an all time high.

But the question remains: can the Yeah Yeah Yeahs afford to grow bigger and smarter without compromising their punk aesthetic? The point of punk is to play to that debased, instinctual adolescent we had, or still have, lurking inside.

Draw the lines where you will. It shouldn’t matter where the Yeah Yeah Yeah stake out their claim, in punk or garage-rock. It’s all still the same good music. And what about that other word — “post” — that so many critics, including myself, have used when categorizing their music? That should be enough to let them play smart punk and get away with it.

(Photo of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs playing the Pukkelpop Festival in Belgium from Dani Lurie of London via Flickr using a Creative Commons license. To see the live video of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs performing "Down Boy" please check below.)

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Jeff Siegel said...

Steve, I hate to sound like an old fart, but punk is not about "that debased, instinctual adolescent we had, or still have, lurking inside." It's actually quite political, with a dash of anarchy. God Save the Queen is about liberating the working class, while Lost in the Supermarket is about consumerism run amuck. Even the Ramones, at their most high schoolish -- Rock n Rock High School, say -- are as busy rejecting the middle class values of the Queens they grew up in as anything else.

Post-punk may not be quite so political; what is, these days? But Green Day can be as ferocious as the Sex Pistols or the Clash, and I don't think you'd want to use that adolescent line in front of Sleater-Kinney, who always struck me as very Clash-like in their belief that rock n roll could save the world.

Stephen said...

You're right. I failed to mention punk's political angle. However, I'm not sure I would place Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the same category or scope as some of the more poltically influenced punk rockers like the Clash, Sex Pistols, or Sleater-Kinney.

Some of Sleater-Kinney's songs from their last album, The Woods, were politically charged--without a doubt. But the Yeah Yeah Yeahs don't seem to hold those same intentions or that same idealism, that rock 'n roll can save the world.

I would venture to guess that all they care about is writing good rock songs and having a great time on stage.

As for the whole adolescent thing, I wrote of it more as a spirit. Sleater-Kinney may not be the young gals they once were, but when they were still together at that older age, they definitely played shows with an adolescent spirit.

And I'm sure that, for Sleater-Kinney and other aging punk and post-punk rockers, their music is a way to release, or at least revisit, that long-gone adolescent inside them.

Caitlin Servilio said...

Green Day? Green Day might have become all about politics, but I don't think that makes it worthy of comparison to the Sex Pistols or the Clash. Its variety of punk, if you can call it that, is all whiny anti-Bush railing and no spirit. And back when they weren't such musical zombies, quite as many of their songs were about being a lazy, drugged-up kid as sharp political commentary. I'd say you're both right--the best punk had some political component, but let's not forget the angry disillusioned adolescents who were writing it.

Jenn Dearden said...

I have to say that I really don't agree with your assessment of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Now, you can correct me if I'm wrong, but it sounds to me like you are saying that "Maps" has more substance than the rest of the Fever to Tell album and that the EP has this same sort of substance. Unfortunately, I have not fully listened to EP, but it seems to me that this mysterious substance that separates the songs on the EP and "Maps" from the majority of songs on Fever to Tell is simply rhythm. A lot of songs by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are very rough and loud, as punk tends to be. You're trying to argue that these other songs have more merit, but it seems to me that you're saying they have more merit because they aren't "in your face"-they're more subdued, easier on the ears in comparison to other songs. So of course, when it's easier to listen to, it can be easier to see the merit of a song. But that doesn't mean that the songs that are "harder" on the ears don't have as much merit. I think you're too quick to brush off the merit of the other songs on Fever to Tell and declare the songs on the EP and "Maps" as being the products of "an improved band."

Jeff Siegel said...

Caitlin, go listen to Dookie again. Just because Billie Jo Armstrong can write a big, fat hook doesn't mean he doesn't understand the anarchy (or nihilism, for that matter) that is part of punk. Though I'm sure Joey Ramone would be smiling if he could read this.

Steve, Sleater-Kinney was political from song No. 1. Check out Real Man from their first record.

One of the differences between punk and post-punk is that punk had something to react against -- the big record companies that controlled the business in the late 1970s, the art/progressive rock swamp that rock n roll had fallen into, and a political and cultural malaise that alienated record-buying youth, especially in Britain.

Post-punk isn't a reaction against anything as much as it is a revival -- of the sound, of the attitude, of the anger. That may be why it doesn't sound as authentic. The record companies are becoming increasingly irrelevant and rock music is actually pretty good. You have to look to find it, but more and more people are, thanks to the new technology that is making record companies and radio stations increasingly irrelevant. This actually surprised me when I started paying attention to new music after a long time of not paying attention because I assumed, wrongly, that it was all crap.

As to alienated youth: You tell me. In 1977, a ripped Clash t-shirt was a sign of rage, not a fashion statement. Is that true today?

Rick Rockwell said...

Ooh, my eyes are smarting. Did I read that correctly? Green Day: a bunch of whiners? Green Day: not in the same league as the Sex Pistols or The Clash?

Oh, now my stomach is doing flip-flops.

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