In July of 2004, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a rock trio from New York City, opened for Devo, the new-wave group, in a show at the band shell in Central Park. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ 2003 début album, “Fever to Tell,” had gone gold, a considerable achievement for a noisy and idiosyncratic band that lacks a bass player and has a sound that is sometimes thin and spiky. The group had sold half a million records, in part because the video for “Maps,” a stirring love song that is as close as the band gets to a ballad, had become a staple on MTV2.
The Central Park gig was the trio’s most high-profile to date in its home town. It had been raining, and clear plastic ponchos had been distributed to the audience, about three thousand people, some of whom shouted “Devo!” during the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ set. The band members were fighting the crowd, the weather, even their clothes. Under a poncho, Karen O, the lead singer, who is twenty-seven years old and long-legged, was wearing a leotard that looked like a stained-glass window and appeared to be a couple of sizes too small. Eventually, Karen O (her last name is Orzolek) removed her poncho and tied it protectively around her waist while she romped around the stage, hollering and throwing her hands in the air. It was a typical performance for her: simultaneously aggressive and vulnerable. And, like everything the Yeah Yeah Yeahs do, the show was both off-kilter and mesmerizing.
“Show Your Bones,” the group’s second full-length album, which will be released in March, is a testament to its ingenuity. Karen O and her bandmates—Brian Chase, the drummer, and Nick Zinner, the guitarist—put primitivist graphics on their album covers and appear with bands, like the Liars and Black Dice, who think noise is its own reward. But beneath the art-rock trappings the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are pop musicians. Theirs is a slightly scruffy version of pop, made with cheap instruments and Karen O’s surreal lyrics, but their songs—like their performances—have all the traits of Top Forty hits: economy, momentum, personality, and pleasure. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs value joy over indie credibility, and they want to be catchy. (The group’s albums are each less than forty minutes long, and its other two releases are brief EPs.)
Chase, a compact, bespectacled young man, who attended Oberlin College with Karen O, is one of rock’s most satisfying drummers; he is capable of complicated polyrhythms but rarely plays anything fussy. Zinner, who played in a duo with Karen O before they formed the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, is fine-featured and rail thin, with a nest of black hair and a talent for writing elegant, howling guitar motifs that often echo, but never overwhelm, her singing. Both men need to be this good to hold their own against Karen O, whose fearsome charisma would have made her a success had she appeared with nothing more than a microphone and a pair of maracas. She stalks the stage, plants her feet wide apart, pours beer on herself, and flings equipment around with no apparent regard for whom she might hit. (On the band’s Web site, she is depicted breathing fire, with one foot resting on an enormous cartoon rabbit.) Her outfits, which are made by her friend the designer Christian Joy, are a jumble of kindergarten and runway: short, shiny skirts worn with Converse high-tops, ripped fish-net stockings, and, on at least one occasion, a Wonder Woman-style capelet. Karen O’s voice lacks the power of Björk’s, but she is as versatile a performer. Sometimes she sounds like a barroom country singer; at others, like an Eastern European folksinger, or a ditzy pop star.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs played their first show in 2000, opening for the White Stripes at the Mercury Lounge. The following year, they recorded a five-song EP, which they released themselves. It quickly became popular, and was re-released by the respected indie label Touch & Go. One track, “Art Star,” is a gleeful parody of the art world. “I’ve been working on a piece that speaks of sex and desperation,” Karen O deadpans, boasting, “I got a dealer in Tokyo. I got a rep in Paris. I got an agent in Cologne. Shit, I got a gallery in New York!” The chorus consists of her screaming “Art star!” for a very long time, as if she were being electrocuted. Just before you reach to turn the howling off, she does so herself, chiming, “Doot doot doot doot, doot di-doot di-doot.” (Perhaps the art star has overcome her anxiety attack and is skipping down the street to the bank.)
The song that seemed to stick with people, though, was “Our Time,” which begins with a primal drumbeat common to girl-group songs from the sixties; it sounds like the opening of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” only slowed down a bit. Karen O sings about what could be a romance gone bad—“I’ve been sunk by your lies, and my heart, baby, is cold and blue”—but in the chorus the words become more ambiguous: “It’s our time, sweet babe, to break on through. It’s the year to be hated, so glad that we made it.” Is she talking to her lover? Or to her bandmates, imagining that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are on the verge of becoming big enough to be resented? Karen O understands that rock lyrics aren’t necessarily better when they’re clearer.
“Gold Lion,” the first single on “Show Your Bones,” is more like a traditional rock song than much of the band’s previous work. The opening measures are unexpectedly generic, consisting of a simple beat, basic acoustic guitar chords, and a mysterious phrase: “Gold lion’s gonna tell me where the light is.” But soon the drums become commanding, and the echoey, growling guitar parts stack up, one after another, until the music reaches a cacophonous peak. Karen O is making poetic promises. “We’ll build a fire in your eyes,” she says, before breaking into a girlish “ooh, ooh,” as the guitar whines like a violin being played over a walkie-talkie. The next song, the gentle and plangent “Way Out,” borrows liberally from R.E.M., Sonic Youth, and Nirvana, which is a sign of confidence; the Yeah Yeah Yeahs know that no one will mistake them for anyone else, however much they plunder the past.
The entire record seems hopeful. It is rife with cheery catchphrases—“we’re just another part of you,” “good things happen in bad towns”—and tremulous guitar parts. “Phenomena,” one of its most exuberant songs, is destined to be remixed as a dance tune. The beat is heavy, and Zinner switches between robust metallic riffs and hollow, spooky oscillations. In the chorus, Karen O sings, “Something like a phenomenon” —a lyric lifted from Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines,” which is based on a classic eighties dance track, Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern.” In the next breath, she modifies the phrase to “Something like an astronomer.”In the chorus of “Cheated Hearts,” a gorgeous, yearning track that could become the album’s big hit, Karen O sings one phrase over and over in a crescendo: “I think that I’m bigger than the sound.” The band responds with a convincing eruption of noise, elegantly belying her claim. The moment neatly captures Karen O’s appeal: in her recordings and in her live performances, she satisfies the audience’s need for a star while allowing us to see the ordinary person struggling with that role. “It’s important for kids to feel bigger than they usually do,” Karen O told me. “We’re trying to make you feel a little bit cooler than you might actually be.” Kids listening to “Show Your Bones” will recognize the insecurity she describes, and feel it drain away.