Happy 15th Anniversary to Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ debut studio album Fever To Tell, originally released April 29, 2003.
The sound of Yeah Yeah Yeahs is a certain feeling: under your sneakers the floor is sticky, the beer you’re drinking is clear gold, and the bathroom you just broke the seal in is a mix of graffiti and grime. Lighting in the bar is just dim enough to make eyes at your crush across the crowd. But not before you sweat all over yourself, while you jump along to pounding drums, hurried guitars, and that rasp—Karen O’s voice squeals, roars, and jabs, reminding you that you might not need that someone because you have her.
Karen O (for Orzolek) is a singer-songwriter made of teenage dreams. She can howl at the moon and hum you to sleep in her arms, and either way you’re not alone. The other two-thirds of Yeah Yeah Yeahs are Brian Chase on drums and Nick Zinner on guitar and keyboards. They’re a trio of power in tiny spaces, simple ideas in big places, and pure volume.
Their debut album Fever To Tell turns 15 this week and it hasn’t aged a day. Written by the band when they were in their early twenties, it’s a record of bright neon coming from a dark, dank place of sagging curbs and tired stories: Lower Manhattan. Yeah Yeah Yeahs are a New York City band, part of the garage rock revival of the early 2000s (they were the early support band for The Strokes and The White Stripes). There are only twelve songs on this debut, but it’s a simple dozen announcing their presence like a prick on your skin.
Album opener “Rich” starts with the keyboard, clear and concise. It trickles between the scales of the track, taking you up and down while Chase fills in the drums. “I’m rich,” Karen O sings, “like a hot noise.” The lyric itself is a blast of fresh air, announcing the album’s point of view: Yeah Yeah Yeahs are here to party, they’re here to dance, they’re here to sweat, and they already love you.
The lyrics of “Rich” are a jumble, meant to be screamed and shouted, full of percussive yelps and tiny spots for catching your breath: “She slipped / Down a rot drink / Unzipped / She doesn't exist / So unloved / I took 'em standin' up / So stuck up / Raw.”
It ends with Karen O whispering “rich” a dozen or so times. The unpretentious fact of these lyrics—of all of them—is what works best with the band’s sound. Every piece is in play for art punk: easy chord progressions, words you know by the second verse, and drive. Yet, Yeah Yeah Yeahs are dynamic without trying so hard.
Track two, “Date With The Night,” is two and a half minutes of unadulterated fun. It makes your heart beat on your bones and your pulse hammer in your fingertips. Zinner opens the track with guitar—only on the left side—and four counts of four later, Karen O takes a breath and cries, “I got a date with the night!” The guitar stops suddenly before it comes back—the original rock and roll beat drop—before Chase hits the snare. His steady work on the hi-hat pushes you forward. You jump along.
“Date With The Night” is a ball of fire. One guitar lick stops only so another can pull you in a different direction. The heat is in the underlying, endless oomph of the drums, and the song is over before you know it…with a gasp. Karen O catches her breath right at the end. And that is Yeah Yeah Yeahs: they are wild lightning during the storm. No need for thunder, they’re already plugged in.
The songs go on like this, less than half of them longer than three minutes, and no bass in sight. Their ethos as a band shines through in the track listing of one-word song titles, short phrases echoing their name, “No No No,” and abstract beings and ideas (“Black Tongue” and “Cold Light”). These songs demand attention, even if you’re not sure which way to look. You must look.
Karen O manages to cover every base in the vocal songbook in these songs. Her power is undeniable, even when she’s delicate on the love song “Maps,” their most famous track: “Wait / they don’t love you like I love you / wait / they don’t love you like I love you.” You can imagine her twirling the elongated “maps” she sings around her finger, like a telephone coil, as it leaves her lips.
“Modern Romance” is full of drone and enough hum to remind you of that other famous New York City punk band, the band that started it all for so many. The backwards looping and warble of the guitar, Karen O’s voice ringing layered on itself, and the Christmas bells are all a sound of defeat and texture. “Well I was wrong,” she sings, “it never lasts…there is no / modern romance.”
Not until the last track “Poor Song” is the trio audibly tired. It’s the closest they come to being acoustic here—drums on the rim, the guitar’s timbre more like a bass, and Karen O’s voice stretching from her throat as she sing-talks. It’s a cue to slow down and take stock: “Well I may be just a fool / But I know you're just as cool / And cool kids / They belong together.”
Karen O met Brian Chase at Oberlin College but transferred to NYU where she met Nick Zinner. When their first drummer didn’t work out, Chase stepped in and the trio came alive. It’s cliché to label them as “The Cool Kids,” but it also feels stupid not to. The three of them play with rock and roll in their hands, like putty, to see what else it can be and what it can do. Yeah Yeah Yeahs are raspy and bendy and impossibly spunky.
Fever To Tell was only their beginning, a record of swagger that still shines, even since Yeah Yeah Yeahs have moved out of the barroom and onto the festival circuit (or hell, to the Empire State Building). Last year it was reissued on vinyl for the first time in over a decade with B-sides and rarities, photographs, and an unseen documentary. The band also released a limited edition “The Deluxe Box” that contains even more fan memorabilia and comes signed and wrapped in fishnet stockings.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs are the blaze of electricity in your record collection, a band cemented in rock history as a vibrant powerhouse. If you haven’t made it out to Coney Island to ride the Cyclone (which turned 90 last year!), just turn on Fever To Tell. Every track is a wild ride with a jagged beat, sharp turns, and a classic New York City attitude.