Review Summary: Synths, melodies, real depth - this is not your little brother's Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
As people in their teens are wont to do, I took every opportunity presented to me in the period between 2001 and 2004 to mouth off to whoever would listen about how all the bands who were vogue at the time would have disappeared in 5 years. The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Vines, The Hives, Kings of Leon, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Jet, The Libertines, The Von Bondies - all of them felled in one swoop by the contempt of a 16-year old with a big mouth who didn't yet know that 90% of bands don't last 5 years anyway.
Well, the 5 years are up, and I was mostly right. There are swarms of other bands who sounded like that, and I can't remember enough about any of them to name them. Jet and The Vines disappeared quietly off into the night; The Hives were last seen duetting with Cyndi Lauper and Timbaland and still not really getting anywhere either critically or commercially; The Strokes are still a going concern but have seen their stock drop rapidly since Is This It?
and most expect their next record to be a damp squib; The Libertines broke up and more and more people have been figuring out the scam ever since; The Von Bondies are still only notable for getting beat up by Jack White. Speaking of, The White Stripes have kept going and are now such an institution that Mr. White has done a Bond theme, but in reality you always suspected that they would be the ones who would age well.
Which leaves us with Kings of Leon and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The former have absolutely shocked me in the way they've gone from being a clattering, mostly worthless bunch of chancers to suddenly deserving to be considered one of the world's best and biggest bands, and I'm absolutely glad to hold my hands up and say I was wrong. The album where they turned the corner was their third, 2007's Because of the Times
, and just about the best thing you could say about It's Blitz!
is that it's got an awful lot in common with that record.
Crucially, Yeah Yeah Yeahs have discovered melody, and a sense of tension and release - both things often missing from their earlier work. That's where they most clearly emulate the gigantic leap forward that Kings of Leon made - a song like the gorgeous "Hysteric" could simply never have existed on the previous two records, its payoff line of 'suddenly you complete me' laying waste to the legacy of their previous high watermark, "Maps", in just four words (not that "Maps" had many more words that that in it). The same development is demonstrated in every ballad here; even if none of them quite reach the heights of "Hysteric" ("Runaway" comes closest), they're all obviously the work of a band who've gone away, taken stock of their strengths and weaknesses, really thought about how to move forward, and then gone and done it. As such, the two most prominent of those strengths are both out in full force throughout, with Karen O's knack for a slightly weird yet oddly affecting lyric repeatedly exploited and Nick Zinner's gift for getting a massive amount of impact from a tiny amount of input feeding into everything. In fact, it's hard to remember the last time a guitarist (in a predominantly guitar-based band, no less) made such a difference to a record while taking such a back-seat; Portishead's Dummy
is as near as I can come after a brief brainstorm. First-time listeners with strict expectations might not even notice Zinner is there at all on quite a few of these tracks, and dismiss this as a synth-tastic Karen O solo album - yet pay more attention and his subtle touches shine through in a way they never have before. Now that he's not carrying all the melodic and rhythmic weight on his own shoulders, as he has done on their two earlier albums, he's free to do things like this. It's Blitz
is by no means a great guitar album in the traditional sense, but he sounds as free and inspired as ever here, despite the constant domination of synthesizers.
It's the synths, however, that hold this album back, in a more general sense. For one thing, the influences brought in here are all drawn from dance music, particularly that of the 80s, and the indie-rock-band-discovers-80s-synth-pop path is so well trodden by this point that we're all just waiting for the next trend to happen and in 2009 it's hard to get excited about anything that seems so tied to a mid-00's ideal. Yet, again, it's the comparison to their peers that really throws up why this is a problem and where the Yeah Yeah Yeahs haven't quite succeeded to the degree they might have - because while the use of synths here is fine and isn't as completely homogeneous with nu-rave as skeptics might expect (in fact, it sails as near to recent Bloc Party as anything), there are ideologies at play. Bands like Kings of Leon and The Killers have become so huge because the artist's they're aiming at are the likes of U2, Bruce Springsteen, Simple Minds - big-hearted rock bands who scored a mass audience by acknowledging and embracing their emotions. The artists that the YYYs sail closer to were similarly inclusive, but they rejected and ignored those emotions and just sang about dancing instead. There's nothing wrong with that in the right context, of course, and this ballad-heavy album is certainly not vapid in any way, but by placing themselves in that sort of lineage they've harmed their own cause. Were the music here closer to Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys we wouldn't even be discussing it, but one song here in particular sounds a little too much like Tiffany on first listen.
That's just the reason why they've made a great album and not a classic, though. It's Blitz
will probably date badly and, despite clearly being better than Fever To Tell
, it probably won't be remembered by as many people, or as fondly by those people. Regardless, it IS a great album, and one that's come completely out of leftfield as far as its style and its depth goes. Given that it doesn't really court any one demographic specifically It'll be interesting to see who exactly embraces this album, but whoever does, plenty will. In a world that has somehow managed to dictate that anything with any substance at all can't possibly be 'pop', it deserves no less.