Not that they need the encouragement, but there’s at least one inane musical category the VH1 people have yet to count down: ”Most column inches of fawning press in proportion to actual number of records sold.” Unofficial standings show the Hives with a slight lead over Interpol and longtime chart presence the Roots. But watch out for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. On the strength of one obscure 2001 EP, this Brooklyn trio has the music press crawling all over each other to heap praise. Don’t ask how they did it – just look at the picture. Lead singer Karen O is a fusion of Polly Harvey, Debbie Harry, and Courtney Love. She’s music-critic opium.
It turns out Karen O is also a real live rock star. On the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ first full-length album, Fever to Tell, O howls and growls her way through 37 minutes of art-school punk with enough strapped-on swagger to make Mick Jagger blush. Drummer Brian Chase and guitarist Nick Zinner provide the right mix of new-wave dance influences and traditional thrash brio to make the music fresh, but don’t kid yourself – ”Fever to Tell” is the Karen O show. If there’s any doubt, check the early moments of ”Rich,” when she declares of a potential lover, ”So stuck up/I wish you’d stick it to me/Flesh ripped off…,” and follows it with 10 seconds of heaving, sweaty she-wolf moans. At that point, does anyone really care that the guitarist is working up a nifty tornado by playing through two amps?
Yawps and caterwauls are O’s specialty, and given the limited range of her lyrical interests – mainly, sex and how to get it – this approach works quite well. From the ferocious ”Date With the Night” to the aggressively dirty ”Black Tongue” (”Let’s do this like a prison break/I wanna see you scream and shake”), ”Fever to Tell” is the sound of a woman who wants some. On the bluesy standout ”Man,” she declares, ”I got a man who makes me want to kill,” and you don’t question her authenticity.
No, it’s her depth that leaves you wondering. O can dart from low rumbles to Betty Boop arias, but she doesn’t have much to say in between. Her one lyrical trick is to repeat single words endlessly, and while her voice is dramatic enough to make this compelling on tracks like ”Rich” and ”Pin,” it also leads to a few clunkers. (”Tick,” for instance, repeats the word ”tick” 49 consecutive times.) Combine the intense vocals and thin lyrics with the speed and exuberance of the songs (most are well under three minutes) and ”Fever to Tell” feels a lot like a series of quickies – exhausting, fun, but a bit empty.
The one glorious exception is ”Maps.” It’s the simplest song on the album, building slowly around a trilling guitar and the repeated lyric ”Wait/They don’t love you like I love you.” For a change, O doesn’t shriek, which could be a sign that she knows it’s the best lyric she’s written so far. ”Maps” isn’t about exhibitionism but self-examination. It’s the kind of track you can get lost in. The kind you’ll play over and over for all the right reasons.