Initially, the band went the DIY route. They recorded their self-titled 2001 debut EP (often erroneously referred to as “Master”, in reference to the necklace pictured on the record’s sleeve) with Boss Hogg’s Jerry Teel and released it through their own Shifty label. Featuring the oft-praised Velvet Underground-esque anthem ‘Our Time’, the EP was distributed by Dick Green’s Wichita label in Britain and reached No 1 on the UK indie chart.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs continued to rack up the column inches during 2002, touring in North America with Girls Against Boys, travelling to Europe with The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and undertaking their own headlining UK tour prior to signing with highly respected Universal Music affiliate label Interscope.
The band’s celebrated Interscope debut LP, Fever To Tell, was issued in April 2003. Produced by TV On The Radio’s David Sitek and mixed by Alan Moulder (Ride; The Smashing Pumpkins), the album rose to No.13 on the UK charts and No.55 on America’s Billboard 200 and was greeted by a hailstorm of accolades, including the prestigious New York Times’ Best Album Of The Year award. Fever To Tell remains a riot of attitude and angular hooks, and while critics often isolate the atypically tender ‘Maps’ (which received heavy rotation on alternative radio) as the stand-out track, the strident, staccato ‘Pins’, the frenetic ‘Date With The Night’ and the plaintive ‘Modern Romance’, enhanced by sleigh bells and backwards guitars, all jockey for position among the record’s numerous highlights.
Including a concert filmed at San Francisco’s famous Fillmore Auditorium, interviews and all the group’s videos to date, the first Yeah Yeah Yeahs DVD, Tell Me What Rockers To Swallow, followed in 2004. Work on the band’s second album also began that same year, but, by the early part of 2005, all the songs they’d written were ditched, the consensus being that they mostly sounded too similar stylistically to Fever To Tell.
The band continued to work on new material during 2005 and, in March 2006, eventually unveiled their sophomore release, Show Your Bones.
In a contemporaneous interview with online magazine Drowned In Sound, Karen O jokingly suggested that the album was the result of “what happens when you put your finger in a light socket”, but, in reality, Show Your Bones was less of a shock to the system and more a refinement of Fever To Tell, with subtler textures taking precedence over Zinner’s choppy guitars. Two of the record’s key tracks were slower songs: the soaring ballad ‘Cheated Hearts’ and the enigmatic ‘Gold Lion’, which, framed by relatively delicate guitars, was something of a departure for the band.
‘Gold Lion’ was named after the two Gold Lion awards that Adidas’ ‘Hello Tomorrow’ commercial won at the 2005 Cannes Lions Advertising Festival. Karen O contributed vocals to the soundtrack which was composed by Sam ‘Squeak E Clean’ Spiegel, brother of Karen’s then boyfriend and filmmaker Spike Jonze, who had directed the advert.
Show Your Bones again performed capably on the international stage. It also earned the band a Grammy nomination and charted highly, reaching No.11 on the Billboard 200 in the US and peaking at No.7 in the UK, where the NME later named it as their second best LP of 2006. In support of its release, Yeah Yeah Yeahs toured Europe and America extensively throughout the same year, and curated the popular alternative All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival.
After taking some well-earned time out, the band reconvened to record their third LP, It’s Blitz!, at the Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas. Unlike their two previous outings, the group wrote most of the songs in the studio and many of the tracks incorporated drum loops, sinewy grooves and Tubeway Army-esque synths. Despite this more experimental approach, It’s Blitz! was still very much a pop LP and it spawned three terrific singles, the keening ‘Skeletons’, sensual ‘Heads Will Roll’ and the irresistible ‘Zero’.
Recorded over a period of several months during 2008, the album eventually surfaced in March 2009 and met with almost universally positive reviews, earning the band another Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album at the 2010 awards ceremony, and going on to be voted as the third best album of 2009 by the NME. It’s Blitz! also performed very capably in the marketplace, debuting at No.32 on America’s Billboard 200 (it eventually peaked at No.22) and climbing to No.9 in the UK charts.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs were again rumoured to be working on new material as early as 2011, but their fourth (and, to date, most recent) Interscope LP, Mosquito, eventually arrived in April 2013. The band launched the record in style, performing the album’s first single, ‘Sacrilege’, with the gospel choir Broadway Inspirational Voices on The Late Show With David Letterman, and later performed both ‘Sacrilege’ and the LP’s titular song on Jimmy Kimmel Live!.
Critically, Mosquito received mixed reviews, but it zoomed to No.5 on the Billboard 200, selling nearly 40,000 copies during its first week of release. It also chalked up the YYYs’ third consecutive Top 10 success in the UK, where it debuted at No.9. Visually, Karen O underwent something of a reinvention around the time of the LP’s release, appearing with bleached blonde hair for the first time. Mosquito, though, felt a little more familiar, with dirtier guitars reappearing in the mix, and Karen even suggesting to Pitchfork that “we wrote songs and recorded demos whenever we felt inspired… kind of like Fever To Tell and our first demo”.
Though it largely eschewed the polished electro sheen of its predecessor, Mosquito was nonetheless packed with a diverse range of sounds and moods and it continues to connect after repeated listens. The gospel elements of ‘Sacrilege’ work like a dream; ‘Slave’ seamlessly incorporates Studio One-esque dub textures; and the brilliant ‘Subway’ is a truly evocative sound collage propelled by Karen’s falsetto and an insistent, locomotive-like rhythm. The closing ‘Wedding Song’, meanwhile, even recreates some of the poignant intensity of ‘Maps’.
The band were busy in the wake of Mosquito’s release, curating the ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ Festival at London’s Alexandra Palace and playing the celebrated US Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival in the spring and summer of 2013. Though Karen O has since released her first solo LP (2014’s highly personal Crush Songs), Yeah Yeah Yeahs remain very much a going concern. Indeed, as Karen admitted to the NME, in December 2014, they’re always liable to return whenever they “get that itch”.
On their EPs, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs grew considerably, moving from the arty yet anthemic garage punk of their self-titled EP to Machine's angular urgency. Fever to Tell, their first full-length and major-label debut, also shows growth, but for the first time the band doesn't sound completely in control of the proceedings. Their EPs were masterful studies in contrast and economy, balancing just the right amounts of noise, melody, chaos, and structure within 15 to 20 minutes. At 37 minutes long, Fever to Tell sounds, at different times, scattered and monotonous. Most of this is due to poor sequencing -- the album opens with some of the raunchiest noise the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have ever recorded, then abruptly changes gears and delivers a kitchen sink's worth of pretty ballads and experimental pieces. Both the old and new sides of the band's sound offer brilliant and frustrating moments: "Rich" is a sneering sugar-mommy story; "Black Tongue," which features the great lyric "let's do this like a prison break," is almost Hasil Adkins-esque in its screwed-up sexuality and rockabilly licks. "Date with the Night," a rattling, screeching joy ride of a song, combines Karen O's unearthly vocals, Nick Zinner's ever-expanding guitar prowess, and Brian Chase's powerful drumming in dynamic ways. Not so good are the insanely noisy "Man" and "Tick," which have enough volume and attitude to make the Kills and Jon Spencer turn pale, but also sound like they're coasting on those qualities. The moody, romantic songs on Fever to Tell are the most genuine. "Pin" and "Y Control" have a bittersweet bounciness, while the unabashedly gorgeous, sentimental "Maps" is not only among the band's finest work but one of the best indie/punk love songs in a long, long time. Along with "Modern Romance," a pretty but vaguely sinister meditation on the lack thereof, these songs compensate for some of Fever to Tell's missteps (such as "No No No," a lengthy, halting mishmash of punk and dubby experimentalism). Perhaps they should've included some of their tried-and-tested songs from their EPs, but for a group this mercurial, that would probably be stagnation. Though this is their debut album, Fever to Tell almost feels like a transitional release; they're already rethinking their sound in radical ways. Even when they're uneven, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are still an exciting band.
Words: Heather Phares
As explosive as they seem on the surface, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are also an ambitious, thoughtful band and keep pushing the boundaries of their music. They moved from the rawness of their early EPs to the polished art-punk of their first full-length in just over two years, and this drive to keep topping themselves is what led to breakthroughs like Fever to Tell's gorgeous ballad and hit single "Maps." After taking three years to follow up Fever to Tell, and scrapping many of the songs that they came up with while on tour supporting that album, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs returned with Show Your Bones, the yin to their debut album's yang. While Fever to Tell and "Maps" dealt with falling in love (and being more than a little freaked out about it), Show Your Bones is a breakup album. If the Yeah Yeah Yeahs had made this album earlier in their career, Karen O's cutting lyrics and Nicolas Zinner's choppy guitars would've sliced the poor ex to pieces; after all, on "Bang," from their self-titled debut EP, they (hilariously) wrote off a lame one-night stand with "as a f*ck, son, you sucked." Show Your Bones, however, tries to go much deeper than that. Even Show Your Bones' rockers are subdued. The cryptic lead single "Gold Lion" (which sounds like a mash-up of Love and Rockets' "No New Tale to Tell" and Siouxsie and the Banshees' "Peek a Boo") is a little plodding; though it eventually worms its way into listeners' heads, it's surprisingly restrained compared to previous singles. Aptly enough for the kind of album it is, Show Your Bones' softer songs are some of its strongest: "Dudley" sounds a little bit like Sonic Youth covering the nursery rhyme "Hush, Little Baby," while "Cheated Hearts" is a big, rousing ballad in the vein of "Maps." And, as on Fever to Tell, the band loosens up as Show Your Bones unfolds. "Mysteries" is a jealous cowpunk number that sounds tossed off, but has more bite and fun in it than the rest of the album. On "Turn Into," they take this twangy sound and turn it sweet, resulting in one of their best songs yet.
Words: Heather Phares
Never content to stay in one musical place for very long, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs take their restlessness to the limit on It's Blitz! -- and wind up making some of their most contented-sounding songs. As if to prove one more time that they're not just the architects of New York's early-2000s rock renaissance, Karen O, Nick Zinner, and Brian Chase strip away the guitars and explosive dynamics of their early work even more thoroughly here than they did on Show Your Bones. In their place are shiny keyboards, synthetic sounds galore, and a very different kind of energy. It's Blitz!'s images of a woman's hand bursting an egg and fleshy tomatoes and mushrooms spread across an otherwise empty pizza box are surprising, immediate, and strangely sensual, and that goes double for the actual music.
The album's first three songs are a blitz of bliss, especially "Zero," which kicks things off with blatantly fake beats, revved-up synth arpeggios, and O's command to "get your leather on." Radiating joy and confidence, she and the rest of the band couldn't be further from Show Your Bones' introspection as the song climbs to ecstatic heights. "Heads Will Roll" shows just how ably the Yeah Yeah Yeahs blend their rock firepower with dance surroundings, as Zinner's prickly guitars get equal time with spooky synth strings and O makes "you are chrome" sound like the coolest compliment ever. Meanwhile, "Soft Shock"'s dreamy, almost naïve-sounding electronics make O's vocals -- which are much less affected than ever before -- feel even more natural and vulnerable. Elsewhere, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and producers David Sitek and Nick Launay find other ways to shake things up, from the disco kiss chase of "Dragon Queen," which features Sitek's fellow TV on the Radio member Tunde Adebimpe on backing vocals, to "Shame and Fortune," which pares down the band's tough, sexy rock to its most vital essence and provides Chase and Zinner with a showcase not found anywhere else on the album.
However, It's Blitz!'s bold moments are a bit misleading: the album's heart is often soft and searching, offering some of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' quietest work yet. This approach doesn't always work, as on the too-long "Runaway," but when it connects, the results are gorgeous. "Skeletons" is luminous with an oddly Celtic-tinged synth part; "Hysteric," a love song about being happy with someone rather than trying to make him or her stay, feels like the mirror twin of "Maps." The serenity in It's Blitz!'s ballads feels worlds apart from Show Your Bones in a much less obvious way than the album's outbursts. But between the violently happy songs and the softer ones, this is some of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' most balanced and cohesive music.
Words: Heather Phares
Since Fever to Tell, with each album the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have challenged their audience with their changes, and Mosquito is no exception. A 180 from It's Blitz!'s flashy electro sheen, the band's fourth album downplays synths, programmed beats, and other gadgetry in favor of drums, guitars, and a mix of rock and inward-looking ballads that occasionally recalls Show Your Bones. Karen O, Nick Zinner, and Brian Chase reunite with longtime producers David Sitek and Nick Launay -- who were honorary members of the band by this point -- and they take the trio in any direction they want to go. Since "Maps," some of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' most exciting songs show their vulnerability, and to a certain extent, this is true of Mosquito. O sounds full-throated and full-hearted as she sings "your sun is my sun" on "Despair," the kind of unabashed love song the band has excelled at since that breakthrough power ballad. Likewise, "Wedding Song" -- which O actually sang at her nuptials -- is genuine and intimate enough to strike a near-universal chord. At other times, the band's quieter side just doesn't connect: while "Subway" cleverly loops samples of the train into its percussion, it's a little too successful at capturing an introspective mood; the sparkling, vaguely exotica-tinged "Always" is pretty, but doesn't ring as true as the better love songs here. Meanwhile, Mosquito's loudest songs are more playfully nostalgic than ferocious, which in its own way is in keeping with the album's often reflective tone. "Area 52" and the title track spin tales about aliens and bloodsucking bugs that are much sillier than the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' early days; as impressive as O's wail still is, there's a campiness to these songs that almost feels like the band is having a fond laugh about when they used to do this all the time. Indeed, they sound most engaged on Mosquito when they're somewhere between its extremes. The lead track, "Sacrilege," showcases their way with a slow-building epic and plays like a more daring kissing cousin of Madonna's "Like a Prayer" as O sings "Fallin' for a guy/Who fell down from the sky" as a gospel choir rises up to meet her -- a risky move, since adding it to rock songs can be transcendent but more often than not just sounds like corny co-opting. Here, it actually works, and the way that the band incorporates dub elements on "Under the Earth" and the excellent "Slave" -- which sounds like Siouxsie and the Banshees recording at Studio One -- and the cameo from Dr. Octagon on "Buried Alive" are nearly as impressive. Something of a grower, Mosquito has perhaps the widest range of sounds and moods the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have ever presented on one set of songs. It might not be as cohesive as their best albums, but the standout songs rival their finest moments.
Words: Heather Phares