Thursday, April 18, 2013

album review: 'mosquito' by the yeah yeah yeahs

There are some musical acts that just get absolutely no reaction out of me.

Make no mistake, it's not that I think these acts are bad - in fact, the majority of the time, I'll acknowledge that they're quite excellent, accomplishing their goals admirably and producing high quality material. But in the end, if I'm asked to remember or (god forbid) sing a song from one of these acts, I'm going to be stumped, simply because the music has refused to lodge in my brain. Once again, it's not that it's bad, it's just that this music has completely failed to register with me on any sort of level. And believe me, it gets really goddamn frustrating because I want to be passionate about musical acts that my rational instincts tell me are great bands or great singers - but for some reason, the spark just isn't there.

Now for the longest time, the act that I've predominantly associated with this problem is Radiohead. And before you jump down my throat, I'll acknowledge right now that Radiohead is a great band with a lot of cool ideas and some very, very solid albums. But when I read the legendary Pitchfork review for Kid A and see the obvious passion for the album (buried behind some extremely pretentious waffle, to be sure, but then again, this is Pitchfork), I'm frustrated because I just don't have that same level of feeling for that album. I can acknowledge it's a damn good album, but I can't get worked up about it the same way I'll care about, say, a new Ke$ha album or a new Nick Cave album or a new Eminem album or a new Backstreet Boys album. 

And don't say 'you don't get it', because that comment goes nowhere with me. For as much as I analyze music, I'm fairly certain I 'get' Radiohead's deal, and I can understand what they were trying to do. But after having listened to that album (and indeed, their entire discography) multiple times, I'm genuinely frustrated that I still can't get passionate about this band. Thom Yorke dropped a new album this year and I've heard great reviews of it, but right now, I just can't care about it because Radiohead just evokes no reaction from me. Sorry, Radiohead fans, I wish I could like your favourite band to the same degree you do, but I'm not going to be a hipster and claim to like something if it doesn't get to me in some way.

And for the longest time, I tended to include The Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the same category I included Radiohead: music that I would definitely acknowledge is good or great music, but  material that just left very little impact on me. And like with Radiohead, I could see what made The Yeah Yeah Yeahs a great act - solid guitar licks and great bass work, potent and evocative vocals from Karen O, and some cleverness and black humour in their lyrics carefully balanced with real emotion - but I just didn't care. Sure, I would admit they were a very solid act, and had more longevity than some of their indie rock contemporaries that burst on the scene in 2003-04, but at the time, I tended to dismiss them with the rest of that indie rock boom that I didn't care enough about to investigate further.

Fortunately for me, I've warmed a little more on The Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the past while, and I think I've figured out why: most of their songs felt far too short. Sure, they worked excellently in that tight controlled burst, but the songs were so brief that they never really sunk in with me. Perhaps the only song that really stuck with me off of their first album Fever To Tell was 'Maps' (okay, part of it was because of Rock Band, I'll admit that), and that's because that song took its time and built itself on an interesting and powerful sentiment. The second album Show Your Bones was a bit of a sophomore slump, imitating the guitar work of Love and Rockets without the energy, and like The Strokes before them, felt a bit like they were treading the same water they were on their debut (although I'll admit 'Phenomena' is pretty goddamn awesome). 

Thankfully, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs managed tor recover with It's Blitz!, which managed to both innovate and maintain the elements that made The Yeah Yeah Yeahs a solid act. This album was the one that began to win me over, mostly because it felt like the band was expanding their sound and doing it in smart, intriguing ways. More importantly, it felt like they were giving their songs more of a chance to breathe and develop some texture to augment their sharp, minimalist lyrics. 

So when I heard they were releasing a new album, I was intrigued by what new innovations were going to erupt out of the woodwork. What could I expect from The Yeah Yeah Yeahs after It's Blitz!? Would it be that last saving grace before I have to suffer through's latest abomination in a couple of days?

Well, here's the funny thing. After listening through the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' most recent album Mosquito (a bit of an odd name for an album, but I'll come back to why it works), I can make this statement: it is both an evolution and a devolution of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' sound, to the point where I'm more than a little stymied about how I should think about it. It's all the more frustrating because there are the seeds of a very interesting and much better album lurking beneath the surface here - and the aggravating part is that I think The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were actively taking steps away from creating that album.

Let me explain. According to press interviews before Mosquito came out, lead singer Karen O made the statement that The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were 'going back to basics', recording in a filthy old place they purchased to get the sound and atmosphere they wanted. Now, in principle, going back to the material that works is not a bad premise for bands to take - hell, I'd argue The Strokes have only really been good in the past decade when they have gone back to the basics that made them good.

However, we aren't talking about The Strokes - we're talking about The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, an act that already stuck pretty close to their 'basics' with their sophomore album Show Your Bones, and were rightly criticized for a lack of innovation. Now, the discussion of whether it's right to criticize an act for not innovating is a topic for a different time (ultimately I think it comes down to the band's specific circumstances), but here's my point: when The Yeah Yeah Yeahs go 'back to basics' on this album, I run right into the same problem I had with them before, in that I know they're pretty good, but they don't interest me whatsoever. And it gets worse when you realize that Karen O sounds like she's tuning out on these tracks, like she's bored with the song. Sure, she's still the same great singer, but there's not the same heart or investment in the track, and if she's not going to care, why should I?

But really, that's not my big issue. No, that comes with their choices to innovate and improve their style - mostly because when they do so, they're excellent. Songs like 'Sacrilege' and 'Slave' and 'Under The Earth' have a real vaudeville-esque charm and energy to them that I had seen glimpses of on It's Blitz!, but now it's on full display and it's glorious. And this is only emphasized further with Karen O's delivery - she nails the sultry, 'woman scorned' femme fatale style effortlessly in a way that I wish Charli XCX had managed to pull off on her debut. In fact, I'll make this statement right now: if Karen O wants to try to have The Yeah Yeah Yeahs make a darkwave, more gothic album, I bet it would kick all amounts of ass.

And the lyrical content behind the verses supports this atmosphere, with real sparks of cleverness coming out of a real gritty noir feel for which The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are a natural fit, mostly because Karen O absolutely nails the balance between haughty sultriness and real vulnerability. Even as the title track flirts with misandry (through rather heavy-handed symbolism comparing men to mosquitoes), Karen O manages to sell it in a way that doesn't come across as shrill or grating. That's a tough balance to pull off, and it's not the only place where they make it work. 'Sacrilege' (probably a tie for my favourite track with 'Slave') manages to compare the actions of a cheating lover to blasphemy, which is an overblown and melodramatic comparison to make - yet Karen O manages to balance the crescendo properly with a full gospel chorus so the song blows past ridiculous and becomes kind of awesome.

So here's my problem - all these great ideas and evolutions in sound and style are things I enjoyed a great deal on Mosquito. That is, until the second half of the album comes around and I'm enveloped in a selection of tracks that sound like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are remaking Fever To Tell, but with significantly less energy or enthusiasm. And the worst part of it all is that I think from some of the band's statements, the feeling encapsulated by the second half of that album is what they were going for, what they were looking to achieve. 

Uh, why? Why would you do that? The first half of Mosquito put on display the fact that The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have unique and interesting musical ideas to explore - and yet you want to go back to remaking an album that was pretty good a decade ago but that really wasn't all that interesting in retrospect? And lest you forget, an album that you already attempted to follow up by doing more of the same in your second album? If you're going to go back to the basics and have nothing much more to say with the original style (and even less energy with which to say it), why should I care? The first half of the album is a blistering indictment that The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have something interesting and potent with their stylistic shifts - and yet, that sound and energy is abandoned, the nadir being 'Buried Alive', a baffling collaboration with Kool Keith's rap persona 'Dr. Octagon', where he manages to rap well and yet completely misunderstand the tone and message of the song.

And the frustrating part of it all is that the latter half of the album isn't really bad, but I just can't care about in the same way, and I can't help but feel The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are treading water here. Between It's Blitz! and the first half of Mosquito, I see real potential for some fantastic music from The Yeah Yeah Yeahs - yet every statement from the band dashes that hope on the rocks as they don't even see that possibility. That kind of pisses me off, I admit, but really, at least they aren't actively making bad music.

So in summary, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Mosquito is an album that should really be so much better than it is. There are moments of surprising brilliance on this album I really, genuinely liked, but I feel some of those moments might have been accidental. And though this review is coming out a lot more negative than I was hoping for - once again, the latter half of the album isn't bad, it's just not interesting to me in the same way and that colours it in my eyes - I'd still recommend you check it out.

And really, if I'm going to be talking about an act that where the main performer isn't trying... 

Yeah, it's coming. Strap in, folks, this isn't going to be pretty.

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