Everybody, at some point or another, has had the wrong idea about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Teenagers discovering them after hearing “Maps” confused them for a more mainstream pop act. Anybody who discovered them through their first couple of EPs most likely wouldn’t have expected that they could produce a crossover hit. I, at one point, believed the hype outweighed their talent, until I heard Fever to Tell. And longtime fans couldn’t have expected that the band follow up their abrasive debut with such a solid, power chord heavy Rock record.
Having gone from sassy to abrasive to sublime, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have arrived at a new stop on their unending evolution with Show Your Bones. The band’s second album is far from the commercial smash that some might have expected after “Maps,” yet it’s a lot more accessible than most of the band’s skronky, no wave tunes. The band has never rocked so heavily and so heartily, and yet, Karen O is much less shrill than she used to be, or, as our own Hubert Vigilla once put it, “like Mike Patton with a vagina.”
Karen O is a rock singer now, just as much as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are a rock band. They’re not a punk band, they’re not art-rock. They’re rock and fucking roll. What’choo gonna do about it? They’re also one of the biggest bands to come out of the Brooklyn post-post-punk scene, and for that reason, a bigger sound has to follow. As such, “Gold Lion,” the first single, stomps its way into the record, “We Will Rock You” style, with O singing “Gold lion’s gonna tell me where the light is.” What does it mean? I have no idea. Lion of Babylon maybe? I never pegged the YYYs as Rastafarians, so probably not. But it sounds really cool, whatever it means.
“Way Out” is strummier and subtler, but stunning all the same, a soaring interplay taking over after each chorus. “Fancy” is the really big rock track, one that sounds more Queens of the Stone Age than Sonic Youth, though the post-punk angularity of “Phenomena” returns to a slinkier, sexier and more familiar place, with its chorus referencing Liquid Liquid (who were sampled on Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines”—learn your rock history, kids). More than a mere exercise in post-punk dance, “Phenomena” breaks for Karen O’s attempt to woo us with a layered “ooh.” Then, at yet another peak, the band goes for a jangly, yet heroic melody on “Cheated Hearts,” in which O declares “I think I’m bigger than the sound.” But it’s a pretty damn big sound.
The immense rock sound is downsized on side two in the nursery rhyming “Dudley,” the bouncy punk of “Mysteries,” the lovely acoustic “The Sweets,” and the PJ Harvey-like “Warrior.” All of these songs are quite good, but after the initial punch of the first few songs, their less immediate nature comes as a bit of a surprise, and take a few listens for their charms to truly seep in. But the best songs are often the ones that need a second listen, and “Warrior” is one of them. But “Turn Into,” though humble in its intro, builds to one of the best tracks in the band’s entire catalog. Sure, they only have two albums and a handful of EPs, but considering how good many of their other songs are, it would have to be pretty awesome. And it is.
The snotty, sassy scene queen thing was fun, but now Karen O, Brian Chase and Nick Zinner are full-fledged rock stars. Rather than struggle to maintain a more raw sound or allow their step into the spotlight to turn them into uninspired Top 40 fodder, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have evolved with their growing audience, allowing their sound to expand and to breathe, yet keeping their songs loud and abrasive enough to keep us from forgetting who they are.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.