Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Review: Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz (* * * *)

Yeah Yeah Yeah are all about keeping us on our toes. 2006 saw the release of their relatively mellower and more acoustic release, Show Your Bones, which was quite the stylistic departure from their beloved debut, Fever to Tell. The new approach not only took many by surprise, but alienated a portion of the band’s fanbase as well. Of course, Yeah Yeah Yeahs aren’t a group that would be particularly concerned about that, and I imagine with the generally positive critical reception and amount of press attention, their popularity had significantly increased when all was said and done.

This time around, the band have traded in spiky guitar lines and bursts of feminine rage for layers of synths and…danceable pop tunes? When “Zero,” the spacey, electro-rock first single from was unveiled online, there was no shortage of tirades from angry fans convinced something must have gone horribly wrong at the studio. Fortunately, the backlash was very much unfounded; It’s Blitz is a great album, but it does represent another major stylistic shift in the group’s music. Now that everybody has had some time to settle down, the record has been receiving its proper dues as another exciting and innovative release from a band that continues to stretch their limits while retaining what earned them such respect and admiration in the first place.

Opening tracks “Zero” and “Heads Will Roll” have received the lion’s share of media and critical attention recently, with both being played on SNL, Letterman, etc. The tracks combine synths, guitars, drum machine, and live drumming, serving as a great introduction to the record and something approaching pop perfection. The songs are funky, sexy and pack quite a punch, with Karen O’s impressive vocal delivery. In "Zero," O demands that we get our “leather on,” while in 'Heads' she instructs us to “dance dance ‘till you’re dead.” So things have changed a bit since the days of Fever to Tell, but the band are still as compelling and exciting today as they’ve always been, and It’s Blitz feels like nothing less than a progressive work.

Though the electronically inclined sound feels fairly removed from much of their previous material, many of the songs have a familiar intensity to them. “Dull Life” couldn’t be more inappropriately named, with a low-key introduction soon exploding into a recognizable and organic Yeah Yeah Yeahs moment, with plenty of guitarist Nick Zinner’s rock riffs and a pounding drum beat courtesy of Brian Chase. “Shame and Fortune” similarly conjures the group’s signature sound with one of Karen O’s more impassioned performances in a burning rock ‘n’ roll tune that holds up well against their earlier material.

Though the upbeat tunes are probably the most accessible and certainly the most familiar, it’s the slower, softer half of It’s Blitz that contains the more surprising and inspired music. Prior to this release, few would likely cite Karen O as an artist they would like to sing them to sleep, but considering the intimate glow of this record's "Skeleton" and the swirling, beautiful closer, "Little Shadow," the idea of an O lullaby might be more appealing. That’s not to say these more delicate songs are boring; if anything, they are the most emotionally affecting cuts on the record, and though she tempers her voice and delivery, O’s passion is just as prevalent.

Add a little disco, with TV On the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe assisting with vocals on “Dragon Queen,” and an uncharacteristically romantic moment in the mid-tempo ballad “Hysterical,” and you have the recipe for a gripping, fascinating and impressive collection of eclectic tunes that somehow fit together cohesively. There are a few weak spots, like the somewhat uninspired melodies of “Soft Shock” or the sluggish verses of “Runaway,” but these concerns seem especially isolated, as the track's themselves hold up. And the album's strength's far outweigh any shortcomings.

The songwriting is as strong as it has ever been, the musicianship superb, and while the edgy rock ‘n’ roll sound of their previous work has definitely been softened, it turns out the band are just as adept at mining this new brand of synth rock as they have been at anything else they've attempted. It’s Blitz is a record that deserves more recognition than that of a transitional work; it’s a step forward and up for Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and an immensely enjoyable one at that.

Last Word: With their second dramatic stylistic transition in as many albums, Yeah Yeah Yeahs apply a more synth-based approach to their signature rock sound for some exciting results.