CD: Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Fever to Tell


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The issue of women in rock remains a contentious problem. In every other area of popular music, women have triumphed. They make fantastically successful pop stars, soul divas and sensitive singer-songwriters. Yet, even in 2003, rock music steadfastly refuses to become an equal-opportunities employer. Every new rock genre that comes along, from psychedelia to punk, grunge to Britpop, is driven by male artists, with women relegated either to the margins or a handful of supporting roles.

This has been happening for 40 years, but no one really seems to know why. There are feminist conspiracy theories positing that rock is some sort of phallocratic closed shop, from which the fairer sex is rigorously excluded. More prosaically, the Breeders' Kim Deal has suggested that most women aren't terribly keen on humping around amplifiers and living in transit vans during the early stages of a band's career.

The dearth of female rockers, particularly in the past decade, may account for the frenzy surrounding the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The New York trio are currently attempting to go about their business amid a storm of hype so ferocious even the Strokes might consider it slightly de trop.

Most of the palaver has centred on lead singer Karen Orzalek. In recent months, it has become virtually impossible for her to step outside her front door without a music journalist prostrating himself in her path and tearfully proclaiming her a fashion genius, a feminist icon and the saviour of rock'n'roll. But even glimpsed through this fog, Orzalek cuts a striking figure. Peering out from behind a helmet of black hair, she is stylish but not styled, neither coquettish sex kitten nor guitar-toting tomboy. Mainstream rock music has not really seen her like before.

The fuss about their lead singer has caused the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' music to be neglected. On the evidence of their debut album, that is a serious oversight. It may draw on the sort of bands only nerdish fans of US alt-rock will remember - decadent garage band Pussy Galore, angry "riot grrrls" Bikini Kill, femme-grungers Babes in Toyland - but the end result is fantastically powerful. Guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase create an impressively vast sound, all smashing powerchords, pummelling drums and cro-magnon riffs. Curiously, Orzalek emerges as the band's weakest link.

Those who have already noted that she seems incapable of appearing before a camera without pulling a wacky face may be further disheartened to learn that she also sings like a woman who is incapable of appearing in front of a camera without pulling a wacky face.

There is much panting, gasping, squeaking and adoption of ickle-girl voices. She can essay a squeal that would startle Violet Elizabeth Bott. You scarcely notice how mannered the vocals are when there is great music - as on Date With the Night and Pin - powering away behind her. But when the band lose their songwriting puff, the effect is almost supernaturally irritating. By the end of Tick, which has no tune whatsoever and a performance from Orzalek that could bring dogs to heel, you feel a bit like squealing and pulling a wacky face yourself.

Indeed, the whole enterprise seems to have lost its momentum by track eight. The appropriately named No No No sees the trio attempting a dub reggae pastiche. Along with free-jazz interludes, scat singing and "comedy" cover versions, dub reggae pastiches are less songs than coded messages. Trained ears can immediately decipher their meaning: NO-MORE-IDEAS-SEND-HELP-IMMEDIATELY. After only 20 rather variable minutes, the jig appears to be up.

But as No No No recedes into the distance, there is a dramatic and highly unexpected intervention. As if realising they have milked every drop of inspiration from their reductive garage-rock template, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs shift gear.

Maps is a charming, angular love song. It seems warm-hearted and human, where much of what precedes it sounds arch and affected. Y Control steals a riff from Steve Albini's ferocious 1980s art-rockers Big Black and transforms it into spacey new-wave pop. The closing Modern Romance is lovely, hushed and embellished with backwards guitars and jangling sleigh-bells. Throughout, Orzalek abandons her amateur vocal gymnastics and croons rather sweetly.

You have to conclude that the album's structure is a deliberate trick. Fever to Tell pushes the listener to the limit of endurance, virtually begs you dismiss it as a depressing case of style over substance, then suddenly reveals hidden depths. As uneven as the album is, it's difficult not to be impressed by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' chutzpah and originality - qualities hardly in abundance at the moment. Contrary to first impressions, it seems that the new millenium's first female rock icon may be around for some time.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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