It’s hard for me to imagine a band that has changed as radically from one album to the next as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. And yet, The YYY’s have a unifying spirit that goes through all of their albums and all 3 are bound together by Karen O’s intensely versatile vocals. While the hard copy of It’s Blitz!, the new phase of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, is headed to stores next week, they graciously released a digital copy (with acoustic bonus tracks) last week so that people like me could scarf it up like the greedy little piggies we are.
The title and that splattery album art might lead one to believe that It’s Blitz! is a return to the shouty, distorty days of Fever to Tell, but you don’t have to wait long to find out that’s incorrect. TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek (perhaps my new favorite producer) had a hand in the production this time out and the YYY’s have taken some of the poppier stuff from 2006’s Show Your Bones (it’s been three years between Yeah Yeah Yeahs albums and the same amount of time between Neko Case albums. Usually, such a long wait would be infuriating but, if the quality is on a par with Neko Case and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, I’ll wait three years for every album from now on) to even greater heights, opening It’s Blitz! with the insanely catchy “Zero,” and following it with the dance hit of 2009, “Heads Will Roll.” So you start to think it’s a dance-pop record (like, say, LCD Soundsystem) but then you get to the soft middle of “Soft Shock” and “Skeletons” (which is, by the way, the most TV on the Radio-esque of these tracks). So what the hell is It’s Blitz!?
Well, it’s a fantastic pop album by a band that has reinvented itself for the better on every outing. There are more synthesizers and fewer buzzing guitars than on past YYY’s records – and, usually, I’m a big champion on behalf of buzzing guitars, but Karen O and company have been there and done that. (If you’re hungering for buzzing guitars, though, check out their cover of “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” on the War Child Heroes comp) Ms. O’s voice is a tremendous asset here because she can coo and wail better than almost anyone in rock music, so the softer, more spacious tunes (like “Skeletons” and album closer “Little Shadow”) are appropriately vulnerable and the snarl and bite of songs like “Dull Life” (which does feature some electric guitar, but the riff sounds eerily like Blink 182’s “Dammit,” which admittedly caused me some discomfort at first. I notice it less on each listen, but check out the track for yourself and see if I’m lying) and “Zero” (which is stuck in my head in those rare moments when something from Middle Cyclone is not stuck in my head. Or Pavement’s “Silence Kit,” which has been lodged in there a lot lately) are executed with the full force of Karen O’s considerable power.
It’s Blitz is a brief offering at only ten songs (you can nab the version I got on Amazon with four acoustic tracks, but they’re all acoustic versions of album tracks – not unreleased goodness) but that can hardly be a knock against it since I find myself listening to the album again and again. In my review of Vetiver’s Tight Knit album (did you read that one? Me either), I mentioned that if one were inclined to call 2009 “The Year of the Whatever”, one might dub it “The Year of the Singer-Songwriter.” It’s Blitz! might lead you to amend that and call 2009 “The Year of the Woman,” but I’m happy just to have the good music. Calling a year “The Year of the _________” is the kind of bullshit labeling that I’ll leave to the folks at Entertainment Weekly or Rolling Stone or whatever magazine your parents read. What 2009 has been is a year of pretty great music from artists whom I expect to make great music. I would have been shocked – shocked – if the Yeah Yeah Yeahs had, in fact, turned out a terrible album. Just as, for example, U2 is incapable of radically altering their stadium pop sound, I submit to you that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are incapable of making a truly dreadful album. They’re too good at using every ounce of their musical talents to create fresher, better versions of things lesser bands have attempted (there are several tracks on the Radio Broker radio station on Grand Theft Auto 4 that make me miss the Yeah Yeah Yeahs tremendously. I forgive GTA 4 though because 1) it’s an awesome game and 2) it has a killer jazz station. You haven’t enjoyed GTA until you’ve run over pedestrians to John Coltrane).
And that’s what really occurs to me as I enjoy It’s Blitz! for the nth time, with no diminishing returns in sight. Like TV on the Radio or Tom Waits, they are able to synthesize their vast record collections and unique talents into music that blows right past good and crash lands in Essentialdom. They process the music that came before them and warp it into a fantastic New Something that’s at once familiar and infectious. America’s standards for pop music have crashed harder than the stock market ever dreamed of and now the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have come with a potent attempt to recalibrate our senses and point the direction in which pop should travel for the second decade of our young century. Of course, given the Billy Corgan-approved direction the music business has been heading over the last few years, you can expect fewer albums like It’s Blitz! and more like Chris Cornell’s new shit sandwich, which I’ll be drinking my way through this weekend.
So until then, I’m gonna crank up “Zero” a few thousand more times.