With the frenetic buzz of 2003’s Fever To Tell, New York trio Yeah Yeah Yeahs established themselves as one of the most exciting, and important, bands in the world. With their punky art-rock sound coupled with the unique vocal stylings of uber cool frontwoman Karen O, Yeah Yeah Yeahs became instant icons, heroes of the underground, a beating heart pumping cutting edge indie rock into the atmosphere.
So how do you follow an album like Fever To Tell? When the band began recording new material, they continued in the style of their debut. However all of their recorded songs were scrapped after the band decided they needed to embark on a new sound. “We’re not interested in making ‘Fever To Tell Part 2’,” Karen O said. “The pressure is to re-invent ourselves. We don’t know how we’re going to do it yet but I think it’s in our best interests to try and explore other directions.”
The result of this exploration was Show Your Bones. Released in the spring of 2006, the album is less frenzied than Fever To Tell, the arrangements less choppy and more polished, but the scuzzy, distinctive sound is still there, along with Karen O’s unmistakable cut-glass vocals. But what really makes Show Your Bones different is its poppy edge, the raucous anarchy of the band’s debut replaced with something more lacquered and pristine. And this is exactly what makes it great.
Upon its release, Show Your Bones was met with generally favourable reviews, although it was criticised by some for being ‘directionless’ and, according to The Guardian, ‘White Stripes-goth-lite’. But it’s important to remember that back in 2006, pop music was not cool. The likes of The Strokes, Muse and Green Day were very much in vogue and anything deemed too poppy was largely sniffed at, the late nineties and early noughties having been dominated by cheese. Nowadays, things are very different. It’s the fuddy-duddy rock bands that are largely derided, viewed as Luddites by many in the music press, while pop artists are once again garnering huge critical and commercial acclaim. Were Show Your Bones released today, perhaps its pop influences would not attract such snootiness.
So what of the album itself? Heading it up is ‘Gold Lion’, a single that really did signal a change of direction, the band moving away from chaotic electric sizzle and into more restrained, acoustic territory. Named after the Gold Lion awards Karen O won for her song ‘Hello Tomorrow’ which featured in an Adidas ad, the track shows off a sharper, more radio-friendly sound that earned the band their second top 20 hit in the UK (the first being 2004’s ‘Maps’). That said, Nick Zinner’s guitar breakdown and the clattering finale left no doubt that Yeah Yeah Yeahs were still the vibrant, explosive band that burst onto the scene a few years earlier.
‘Gold Lion’ remains one of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs best tracks to date. Essentially, it’s a perfectly crafted pop song, simple in its melody but high on impact. Unlike their previous tracks, it doesn’t feel rushed or hurried – although it’s this restless energy that propels much of Fever To Tell – but the slower, more thoughtful pace of ‘Gold Lion’ is refreshing, its thumping, repeated drum beat hypnotic and relentless.
Elsewhere on the album, it’s the electric guitars that rule the roost, though they’re on a tighter leash than on Fever To Tell. But that isn’t to say they make any less of an impact. In fact, it’s this smoother approach that makes Show Your Bones such a triumph. While at times Fever To Tell felt messy and incoherent, Show Your Bones is focused and more calculated, the band incorporating instantly catchy hooks, for example of the spiky ‘Phenomena’, to create something that feels more fleshed out and whole. What some critics may have interpreted as an abandoning of the band’s original principles – the principles of making a lot of noise, I guess – is more like a maturing of their sound, their songwriting becoming more structured and melodic, the songs more fulfilling as a result.
As on every Yeah Yeah Yeahs album, the highlight is Karen O’s vocals. Her American twang, often yelped or yelled, remains at the forefront, able to convey devastating emotion in its intensity. But aside from O, Zinner’s guitar riffs remain essential to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs formula. His frantic guitar interludes – see ‘Mysteries’ for a good example – keep the record alight with raw energy, an ingredient that has been crucial to the band from their very inception.
Towards the album’s end, two slower tracks put paid to any idea of a slump or decline in quality. Switching the electric guitars for a quieter acoustic sound, ‘The Sweets’ and ‘Warrior’ counter the earlier tracks’ intensity with their softer, more delicate approach. ‘Warrior’ in particular, with its lo-fi production that would later come to characterise O’s solo album, hits a nerve right at the point most album’s are just killing time with filler. But this is the real beauty of Show Your Bones – there just isn’t any filler at all.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs did something special in 2006, kicking the shit out of the ‘difficult second album’ curse with this immaculate collection of perfectly imperfect rock tracks. It’s prickly, like its predecessor, but the rough edges have been smoothed and the frayed edges neatly sewn up. Because while Yeah Yeah Yeahs are essentially a rock band, Show Your Bones is ultimately a pop album. It’s all hooks and choruses, catchy riffs and repeated refrains, tunes that stick in your head for days. ‘Deja Vu’ pops into my head at least once a month and it’s near impossible to shake. By embracing the fundamentals of pop, Yeah Yeah Yeahs crafted something monumental, infusing rock’s reckless spirit with pop music’s technicality, marrying the two in a beautiful, chaotic matrimony. It was a bold move from the trio that cut their teeth on noisy punk rock, but one that has not just stood the test of time, but has only got better with it.