Yeah Yeah Yeahs: The New Rock Revolution's Great Survivors

Over a decade since their first album, Karen O have emerged as the enduring heroes of the last great music scene...
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Over a decade since their first album, Karen O have emerged as the enduring heroes of the last great music scene...

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My love affair with the ways of Rock (and/or) Roll began and ended with the New Rock Revolution of the early 2000s. Perhaps heralded by the arrival of New Labour (urgh) the turn of the century was a naively optimistic time, post Brit-pop a lot of the major bands of the period released their last great albums, most of them a coming-down apologia (Blur’s13;  Pulp’s This Is Hardcore ;Suede’s HeadMusic;  the Manic Street Preachers’ This Is MyTruth Tell Me Yours; Oasis's Be Here Now). Aside from the intergalactic Hendrix flash of Muse, there was little else worth listening to as the music industry seemed to, once again, have collapsed under the weight of its own hubris.

But as ever the underground provides, and from the dark recesses of (mostly) America, a nu-new wave of bands emerged. Gone was the jaunty, faux-aesthetic of Brit-pop, here was a back to basics, raw rock and roll movement which went against the grain of over-produced shine and each band seemed to form their own uniform varying from beat-up Converse to colour-coordinated suits and ties.  Almost every band from that era had their own iconic look and style and, for a while, this was enough to reignite audiences interest, but the most important change was the music, the long-awaited return of grit without the gristle.

As with Brit-pop, there were great bands and strictly average hangers-on never long for the shifting world of musical tastes. There was even a near rivalry to…err, rival, the Blur Vs. Oasis chart battle with the stripped-down sounds of The White Stripes and The Strokes, though in reality they were friendly competitors and I remember their shared appearance at Leeds Festival 2003 as a positive moment for music.

However, much of this brave new world for music, quickly descended into mockery and false dogma. A lot of bands were so in awe of retro and eager to catch the last train as it left the scene of the copycat crime, their music was ultimately a slavish pastiche of the past, so rock and roll it rendered itself obsolete. As I’ve said, there exceptions, the kind of bands who, when you were 16-17, made you feel you were part of a larger cultural shift, whether you lived in a Fife tenement, a Sheffield tower block or a Camden squat, all of us who were too young to attend the Brit-pop gigs, had our own musical movement.

If you line up the main bands of that period, the ones that produced a great first album and then many substandard ones over the course of the ensuing decade, there is only one group that really stands out for me, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Alongside their raw contemporaries, the by turns brittle and anthemic album, Fever To Tell, went from fierce three minute punk rages, to tripped out seven minute blues jams, and all without a bassist, another style very much in vogue at the time. The band burst out from the New York art rock scene with a mad female vocalist who yelped and growled her way through a progressively insane series of costume changes, a slick but loose drummer and a guitarist hell-bent on making white noise squeals the pop sound for every summer. Between them, the trio formed an anarchic sound from shades of the Velvet Underground mixed with Television on steroids, and many of their best tracks slashed the Motown standard of a three minute hit single in half!

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Post-‘Fever…’, the band seemed to mellow but still retained many hard edges with second album, Show Your Bones. Acoustic guitars expanded the heartfelt drama of the earlier song, Modern Love, and showed a band that could really do light and shade without compromising their song. First single, Gold Lion, retained the kick like a mule drumbeats, guitar annihilation and ecstatic whooping, but contained more movement and greater control on what often sounded like a trio on the verge of musical implosion in their earlier, wilder career.

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Cheated Hearts

After turning country-folk with screaming, the band made another artistic swerve with It’s Blitz!, a doomy collection of pop-disco, swapping guitars for warmer and dancier keyboards. This meant the band lost some of their in your face directness, but also invited new fans into the friendlier groove and proved that they could make a pop album as well as a hipster freakout. Compared to the other bands of the New Rock Revolution era, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are for me the only band that changed, evolved and are still going concern, able to play album tracks alongside killer singles from across three albums, with sustained interest from their audience who were brought along with them.


Zero

Like anything that has a label seeking posterity tacked onto it, the New Rock Revolution was doomed to fail, bands with little in common except for an over-inflated hype, in a decade that from its outset sought both individuation and change, more often than not, by looking backwards. It is almost too easy to make a list, but broadly speaking, where the 90s had Cast and Sleeper, we had The Hives and The Datsuns, indeed, the derivative “The…” band-naming clique was very well satirised in a Sum 41 video, probably the best thing they ever did.

Many of the great bands from this era are still going, but suffering from severe cases of first album syndrome, causing later releases to feature great singles but mostly filler album tracks, having failed to transcend their earlier work, let alone grow their sound. What for many bands of the period began as a fresh wave of authenticity and originality has descended into a straitjacket hell of “signature sounds” which many continue to struggle to escape from. For example, the White Stripes lack of complementing musicians; the Strokes refusal to accept that we no longer live in the 60s-late-70s and are all obsessed with retro; Interpol’s desperate cling to moody atmospherics and Ian Curtis vocals well into the their 30s. Much of the albums that came out around the NRR period were hyped to death and subsequently popular but it seems to be only upon the legacy of that posterity that the bands shuffle along and while they were good in their time, their albums are relegated to the position of context-setting history, along with the event of 9/11, the Millenium Bug and the MiniDisc.


The Yeah Yeah Yeahs new album Mosquito is out on April 15th, through Polydor Records