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Music: Taking On the Naysayers

4 minute read
Josh Tyrangiel

If you measure a rock group’s popularity by the diversity of rumors it has spawned, then the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are the biggest band in the world. According to various reputable music magazines, singer Karen O hates German people; drummer Brian Chase rigged an MTV contest to win a Bon Jovi concert in his backyard; and the band’s new record, Show Your Bones, is a concept album about O’s cat. To set things straight, O, whose seldom-used last name is Orzolek, digs Germans; Chase has never won anything; and Coco Beware, while a real cat, has yet to inspire a song, let alone a whole album. “It’s interesting that people are prepared to believe such odd things about us,” says guitarist Nick Zinner. “Either we haven’t really defined ourselves yet, or our fans are a little crazy.”

Perhaps both. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ 2003 debut, Fever to Tell, careened between art-school punk–the song Tick repeated the word tick an ear-curdling 49 times–and vulnerable pop exemplified by the hit Maps, in which O chased after a lover with the lyric “Wait/ They don’t love you like I love you.” As the rare avant-garde band willing to dip a black-painted toenail into the mainstream, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs attracted a small but protective following that many bands would kill for, but they weren’t satisfied. “We don’t want to preach to the converted,” says O. “We want to be ourselves, but on the biggest stage possible.”

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have spent the past two years arguing over not just how to reach more people but also who their collective self really is. Chase, 28, and O, 27, became friends while enrolled at Oberlin College. O and Zinner, 33, met in New York City, forged an instant bond and became platonic roommates. All three have cared for one another just long enough to be pained by the fact that they no longer agree on everything. When it came to their next musical step, Zinner wanted the group to stay true to its grimy roots. O argued that it was time to move beyond their raw voice-guitar-drums sound and work with new producers. Chase refereed. “We’re all highly sensitive people. It makes for a very fragile dynamic that can easily go to the dark side.”

Complicating matters further is Karen O’s status as a completely undeniable Jagger-Bowie-Blondie type of rock star. (In a corner of a Manhattan restaurant darker than a crypt, her spiky air makes her subject to countless gape-mouthed stares.) In the nurturing United Nations dynamic the band aspires to, O is the U.S., and when she moved to Los Angeles in 2004 and pushed to hire producer Sam (Squeak E. Clean) Spiegel, the brother of her then boyfriend, director Spike Jonze, Zinner and Chase reluctantly went along. The trio recalls the writing process–which did not go well–with uncomfortable courtesy, as if they’re afraid to say anything that might be misconstrued as an insult and regurgitated later. “There were a lot of crackheads near Sam’s recording studio,” says Zinner. That is the nicest thing he has to offer about the making of the album.

The apparent joylessness that went into Show Your Bones is blessedly absent from the final product. Instead, the album sounds like a tight band making a small but confident pop move. The chorus of the first single, Gold Lion, has the catchy, repetitive meaninglessness of all good radio hits but is defined by the power of O’s voice hooting in delight as it fades out. O’s lyrics are intentionally vague–“Lyrics age poorly, especially if they’re specific,” she says–but she sings like an actress, with elastic trills and meaningful pauses, so there’s a story in a line as small as, “My dear you’ve been used/ I’m breaking the news.” Musically, Zinner darts through and around melody unpredictably, creating an impression of a tune rather than a tune itself. He’s not always clean, but he’s always compelling, particularly on Cheated Hearts, a sizzling breakup song that turns into a musical competition when O sings, “Sometimes I think that I’m bigger than the sound,” and Zinner responds with a screeching guitar to remind her who’s boss. It’s dueling banshees until a final verse in which they yawp together in harmony.

Is it a parable for the making of Show Your Bones? The new Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ rumor is that they might break up. Their publicist swears it’s not true, and here’s hoping she’s right. This band is just getting started.

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