The Yeah Yeah Yeahs | Pop review

Brixton Academy, London

Giant eyeballs filled with helium hover at the back of the stage, looking out at a frontwoman in future-geisha robes and a headdress best described as Native American-nouveau. It's understandable why all eyes are on her. She is striking poses to every riff coming from Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner, a man generating his own fierce sonic weather system. She leans over backwards, spraying water over herself like a geyser. Not for the last time this evening, she looks as though she is having as much fun as a frontperson can legally have.

It's hard to feel sorry for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O, playing the first of two nights in London. But let's try. Before CSS's Lovefoxx ever donned a leotard in jest, and just in front of riot grrrl-turned-fashion-icon Beth Ditto, whose Gossip didn't break out till 2007, there was the feral yowl of O, a helmet of short and sassy dark hair atop a whirlwind in a print factory.

Her band, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, were present at all the banquets of noughties rock. Their 2003 debut, Fever To Tell, dovetailed nicely with the garage band renaissance instigated by The Strokes. Its successor, Show Your Bones, was the glossier pop record that should have broken them above-ground. Both feature in NME's recent 50 Greatest Albums of the Decade list (at numbers five and 32 respectively). Third time around, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' recent record, It's Blitz, upped the ante even further. It featured synthesisers and songs – the insanely catchy "Zero", the moodier disco of "Heads Will Roll" – whose pop appeal is undeniable, inducing instant joy tonight. Still, the Yeahs remain a big cult band, rather than a major record-selling phenomenon.

While there isn't any justice in this, there is a kernel of sense. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are a band whose surface sheen of glamour only partially hides the art-punk band jerking beneath. For every singalong, acoustic-laden "Gold Lion" – accompanied tonight by three giant gold Ys that descend from the ceiling – there is an "Art Star", an old, noisy breakdown which Karen O sings from underneath a tea towel.

They may have glitter cannons, peppering fans with shiny shrapnel from the third song in, but the YYYs' surprise fourth member on keyboards tonight is American indie eminence grise David Pajo, a man whose reputation was made nearly 20 years ago as part of Slint, an outfit now more legend than flesh.

As a band, the Yeahs are tied more firmly to the Brooklyn hipster demi-monde of David Sitek (who produced their early records well before he became the art-pop producer du jour) than they are to the Hollywood of Spike Jonze, for a time Karen O's other half. Jonze and O have continued to work together, most notably on Where the Wild Things Are, the Maurice Sendak children's classic that Jonze has made into a film, released here this week. Karen O has done the soundtrack, full of boisterous innocence.

While there is no doubting her foxiness, O's real gift to indie rock has been to reinvest the frontwoman's role with a sense of joyful abandon that is punk in its purest form. As Gossip and CSS struggle to find their way in the wake of one-off hits, you suspect the Yeah Yeah Yeahs might just be the lucky ones. Karen O is a fashion darling, of course. But one whose natural pose is bent over backwards into a yogic bridge posture, howling into the microphone rammed down her throat.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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