Nothing lasts forever, the latest example being the garage-rock revival that blasted off at the dawn of this decade. Although it once injected rock with an energy boost, the style now feels played out, supplanted by more touchy-feely genres like emo and grand-gesture indie bands like the Arcade Fire. So what’s a good, crude guitar band like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to do? The New York art-punk trio made its name opening for born-again garageists like the White Stripes, and their 2003 full-length debut, Fever to Tell, was even more raw and carnal than their peers’ albums: ”There’s no modern romance,” intoned Karen O in the voice of someone who seemed to mean every word she spat out.
On Show Your Bones, the Yeahs have hardly mellowed. Nick Zinner still has a scrappy staccato way with a guitar chord, which lifts Karen O’s weary spirits at the splendid end of ”Warrior” and propels the bludgeoning sludgecore of ”Fancy,” on which O’s muffled voice taunts, ”We’re just a little part of you.” With its tribal beat and rudimentary feel, the first single, ”Gold Lion,” proves how much they learned (or swiped) from Jack White — tracks like that are fiercer than anything off Get Behind Me Satan.
But as Fever to Tell’s surprisingly poignant alt-power ballad ”Maps”’ suggested, the band has more to offer than guttural wailings. Indeed, Show Your Bones picks up where ”Maps” left off, with the trio finding a middle ground between self-conscious primitivism and refined pop. The Yeahs sounded fearless on Fever to Tell, but here they seem undaunted in different ways: They dare to write polished tunes and play them as if getting on the radio weren’t a terrible thing. The arrangements are more textured and fluid than the cobbled-together brawls of the debut, and Karen O’s voice displays deeper, newly tender sides. She wishes away wrecked or dysfunctional relationships to the majestic soar of ”Cheated Hearts” and ”Dudley,” both of which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on one of those great early Pretenders albums. (In fact, O’s vocal resemblance to Chrissie Hynde is even more pronounced on this CD than on Fever to Tell.) ”The Sweets,” which morphs from a strummed ballad to a walloping pounder, is one of several songs on which O sounds less one-dimensionally combative — and more appealingly vulnerable — than before.
As a lyricist, O can be frustrating; her songs read more like scattershot, sexually aggressive blogs than fully formed, coherent thoughts. Yet in the context of the band’s newly robust sound, you forgive her. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are thinking big: You hear it in the punk-funk of ”Phenomena,” their first song to aim for arena enormity, and in the way they’re unafraid to revel in a hook. On one of the year’s nicest surprises so far, the Yeahs say no to surrendering to retro rock’s stylistic prison.