Rear-view Reviews: Fever to Tell by Yeah Yeah Yeahs

24 May

A punk-inspired album that’s everything it needs to be and nothing more.

By 2003, the same year Yeah Yeah Yeahs released their full-length debut, rock radio in the United States was a drainage ditch flowing with post-grunge losers, numetal man-children, and strawberry milk flavoured punks. According to Billboard’s Top 200 Albums of the same year, the only rock artists to crack the Top 20 were Avril Lavigne (Let Go), Linkin Park (Meteora), Evanescence (Fallen), Kid Rock (Cocky), Coldplay (A Rush Of Blood To The Head) and Good Charlotte (The Young And The Hopeless). Barring Coldplay’s offering, all of those albums sound incredibly dated today. And while AFI, Radiohead, The White Stripes, Audioslave, Queens of the Stone Age, and A Perfect Circle are examples of artists who cracked the Top 200 that year and managed to maintain relevance as time went on, the rest of the rock acts are simply forgettable.

I was 25 years-old in 2003 and nothing on commercial radio satisfied me. I had given up hope. I was already prejudiced against teens and college-aged kids. Sat at the bar of my favorite watering holes, I’d roll my eyes when they’d stroll through the door in their home-made or over-the-top vintage clothes, oily hair, minimalist tattoos, and edgier-than-thou attitudes. So as it has been through most of my teenage and adult life, I was journeying back in time to discover music that had either been released before I was born or had been too sophisticated for my younger self to appreciate. I was lamenting the death of goth and (post)punk. I had become an old man before I’d even reached my 30s.

As such, Yeah Yeah Yeahs were completely off my radar and went wholly unnoticed.

Several years later (2010?), I happened across the music video for “Maps” (the third single from Fever to Tell) on YouTube. I watched it several times in one sitting – awed by its elegant simplicity. It all felt remarkably pure; as if it had been distilled down from a more complex molecule. With the chaff left behind, it demonstrated raw, genuine vulnerability – a rarity in any genre of popular music these days.

But I didn’t dive into the rest of the album quickly. In my experience, that often leads to disappointment.

Some time later, I gave “Y Control” a listen (without the hilariously disturbing music video) and found yet another gem that didn’t need fancy facets to make it twinkle. “Y Control” flows seamlessly from intro to verse but then slaps you with an abrupt bridge that shakes you from the groove. In most songs, this would be a death sentence. Somehow, it works here. I can’t explain it. It just does.

From there, it was time to give the entirety of Fever to Tell a try. My commute to work gave me just enough time to take in the short, 37-minute album in its entirety.

What I heard was an energetic, occasionally manic, punky, and oddly danceable selection of quick hitting tracks that offers club gig energy, spontaneity, and just enough studio magic to keep it from from falling apart.

As mentioned in my thoughts on “Y Control” as a standalone track, the theme of start, flow, then rattle-the-cage is persistent throughout the album – most evident in the abrupt, initially jarring track changes. It keeps you in engaged and Fever to Tell never becomes background music.

Karen O’s voice is dynamic, going from a deep fry to fearsome shrieks and everywhere in between. Less a singer and more a vocalist, she fronts this DIY-feeling record with plenty of authority and is clearly the star of the show. Behind her, jazz-educated drummer Brian Chase steps out of his lone position in the rhythm section by avoiding clichés and forcing you to consider the beats. Guitarist Nick Zinner shows no virtuoso tendencies, opting more for rhythm-oriented duties, noisy dead-licks, single string runs, and high-gain hiss. All put together by producer David Sitek, the recorded experience  stays authentic to basement party roots.

Looking at the album nearly 15 years after it’s release, it holds up far better than the vast majority of early 2000s rock offerings. Fever to Tell doesn’t sound out of fashion, because I don’t think its creation was dictated by fads – at least not musically. Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ inspiration seems to pull from at least two decades of college radio, making it unlikely to sport any real expiration date on the packaging.

All that said, I wish I had been listening to this album in 2003 rather than brooding over dive-bar beers and wondering what had happened to rock. Given Fever to Tell was only certified Gold in the United States by the RIAA in 2007 and received overwhelmingly positive reviews, I’m probably not alone in having missed out the first time around.

Rating: 8/10

Stream on Spotify

-Scott Goins





Church Bells are Medieval SPAM

27 Apr

DSC04449As you may now, I live in a sleepy little town not far outside Amsterdam. A little over 100 meters from my apartment’s balcony is the Catholic church you see to the right – the Sint-Laurentiuskerk.  It’s the new church in town; built in 1876. Across the canal and a couple blocks away is the old (now Protestant) church – the Grote of Sint-Laurenskerk. It was completed in the mid 15th century.

Every Sunday at 9:45am, the bells in both towers go absolutely bonkers. And it’s loud. It damned well will wake you up if you’ve slept that late. If you’re hungover, it’s a nightmare cacophony of maddening racket that will have you crawling under the bed.

I’ve determined that this call to the house of god is little more than an antiquated variety of SPAM, and should be illegal.

See, if you were to pick 20,000 E-mail addresses and send them disturbing, unsolicited messages once a week, you could get in serious trouble resulting in hefty fines. But if you irritate the hell out of the same amount of people once a week with the kind of brain-cleaving cling-clanging that removed the alien symbiote from Spiderman and call it tradition? Oh, that’s fine!

Every Sunday, I end up pondering how this is somehow considered anything less than annoying (much less charming) in the 21st century. Would my neighbours be as charmed if I were to open all my doors and windows every Saturday morning at 9am and played Slayer’s Raining Blood (easily among the most irritating songs ever recorded) at top volume?

I doubt it. In fact, I’m pretty certain the homeowners association would be on my ass before the second incident even took place.



Boxing Day Explained for Americans (Let’s Try This Again)

26 Dec

Okay, okay.  I was a bit of a stinker last year.  This time around, I’ll be more accurate.

No, really.

So, Boxing Day.  There are actually a few stories of its origins, and being an aging goth-type, this one is my favourite.

In the early 15th century, the House of Percy controlled the area we now call County Yorkshire, England and collected taxes as a means to subsidise their already substantial wealth and influence.  The family would tax basically anything they could, (livestock, grain stores, even children), a practice that would eventually lead to the Yorkshire rebellion in 1489 when they tried to enforce yet another tax to fund Henry VII’s war in Brittany.

One of the taxes they levied was on grave plots, but only when occupied by a corpse.  Of course, they didn’t dare enforce this tax on cemeteries or crypts on church grounds, but any other place where the deceased would be buried permanently would be subject to the tax.  The idea is that if there is land that the Percy family controlled being used, they deserved tribute for that use. A small army of assessors were sent out twice per year (December with all work to be completed by Christmas Day, and June) to not only count up the graves, but everything else that was subject to collection.  Note that the assessor’s job was just that.  Collection was a whole different thing.

Anyway, during spring and summer months, it was important to get dead bodies in the ground quickly.  Decomposition happens rapidly during this time and also begs for insect infestations.  However, as colder autumn and winter months came, you could wait around awhile, and that’s exactly what they did when dealing with the corpses of those not fortunate enough to be buried on hallowed ground.

Weather permitting, the shrouded bodies would be hidden wherever possible, away from the prying eyes of the tax assessors. Disused barrels was just one method, as they often times already had markings on them to denote duty had been paid.

After the tax assessors’ work was done and had left the area, (usually just before Christmas), the graves for all the bodies would be dug.  This was a community effort, with nearly any able-bodied person (including pre-teen children) lending a hand. If you’ve ever tried to dig a hole in the ground during winter, you know this is hard work.  Add in the time constraints of  extremely short winter days, and you know this is hellish work.

Carpenters, coopers, and anyone else who could build a box, would be hard at work putting together coffins.

Christmas Day, would then be celebrated, with only those who tended animals and such actually doing any work.

And then, on 26 December, the bodies of loved ones would be placed in their boxes.  Any priests trustworthy enough to not spill the beans about the tax dodge would come out to do all the necessary blessings.  Again, no other work would really get done, as this was a day that was to allow for proper mourning and reflection.

The tradition stuck in the area (even after the tax in question was lifted), largely at the insistence of various craftsman/artisan guilds.  Guilds (not unlike today’s unions) held significant influence.  While they often quarreled with nobles, they were effective at getting their way, especially during 15th century when advancements in steel work made certain trades less a commodity, and more of a necessity.  The arguments in favour of making Boxing Day a “day off” being that it should be a day of thanks for the services of their members after years of working for the greater community good (building boxes/coffins for no pay) with no returns.

The practice was purely localized to Yorkshire and the immediate area for roughly 5 centuries until the coal-producing (and increasingly industrialised) North of England came to prominence during the 19th century in ways it never had previously.  Factory workers particularly took to the idea, so much so that Boxing Day Strikes took place in 1901-1905.  By 1905, the strikes had caused so much havoc, property damage, and lost production time, that most industrialists gave in.

So there ya go!  The origins of Boxing Day…

…That I completely fabricated.  Again.


Sell Me Something Healthy

17 Jun

I have a lot of friends and acquaintances who are highly skeptical about modern, Western medicine.

Fair enough. I can empathize with this feeling to a certain capacity. Having lived in the States for most of my life, I’ve seen the near constant flow of pharmaceutical reps quickly passing in and out of the various doctors’ offices I’ve visited. I’ve also known enough people who were strung out on a cocktail of prescription medications they may or may not have legitimately needed at some point. It can all seem rather consumer driven, which seems contrary to the general idea of health care.

But, every time I click a link to an article that tells me that eating broccoli soaked in fish oil will eliminate a variety of ailments, I always find that something is for sale.

Whether it’s that the source of the information is splattered with ads in one form or another, the text has several internal keyword hyperlinks links (one of the most basic means for keeping people on a site so they can look at more ads), or there’s a small library of e-books for sale, someone always wants my money.

That being the case, I can’t see any significant difference between the alternative health trade and modern Western medicine. If anything, both smack of hypocrisy.

And for some reason, I find the hypocrisy from the side of alternative medicine to be the greater sin and infinitely more infuriating. I don’t think Pfizer makes any explicit or implicit claims to be some kind of caring, warm, and fuzzy non-profit. But alternative health gurus love to play the role of an oppressed caregiver full of nothing but good intentions when in reality, they’re just playing to a niche market.

Boxing Day Explained for Americans – The Original Fight Club

26 Dec

For many Americans, Boxing Day is a tradition they’ve heard of, but never truly understood.

Today, Boxing Day is just a day off from work and an opportunity to unwind while watching football (soccer) on television.  It almost works out like a Second Christmas Day, as it’s called in the Netherlands, for instance.  However, the origins of the holiday are shockingly violent and the tradition was the cause of several deaths in the early days.

The story starts in South Kensington, London in 1897 with a disagreement between next-door neighbors Reginald Higgins and Jonathon Stone.  The two men and their families resided in a row of townhouses just off Sloane Road (a major thoroughfare in the relatively new neighborhood).  It was a pricey area, mostly inhabited by upper-middle class families.  Many of the houses there also served as second homes to the wealthy who still had manor homes in the countryside.

Higgins and Stone were quite similar in many ways.  Both were retired junior officers in the British Army with Stone having served in India.  Both were married with primary school-aged children, were well-paid and revered in their occupations (Higgins a well-connected architect, Stone a physician), and the two belonged to a well-respected gentleman’s club.

However, while they seemed to get along well with everyone else in their social circles, it was widely known that the two couldn’t stand one another.  They had each spread accusations and rumors about one another.  Stone had claimed Higgins had been bribing local authorities in exchange for consideration on the design of public buildings.  Higgins accusations against Stone were less malicious.  He claimed his neighbor had often stolen coal from his outdoor delivery box, didn’t dispose of rubbish properly, and that his unruly children had caused quite a bit of property damage (broken windows, fence slats, etc.) to his home.

But the straw that broke the camel’s back occurred on Christmas Eve 1897.

Continue reading

Dutch People Can’t Park Worth a Damn (and Other Stuff Too)

25 Feb

The following is to be read in the narrator’s voice from one of those 1950’s educational films:

The Dutch are a proud, hard-working, and rather tall people. They’ve made many contributions to global culture, particularly in the arts, water management, seafaring, and the slave trade. The Netherlands is also well-known for the use of bicycles in their bustling cities rather than automobiles. The result of this two-wheeled transportation point of view is that the fine, fine ‘Nederlanders’ who do operate motor cars can’t park them worth a damn.

Of course, the above is hyperbole and intended to induce a chuckle or two. But the fact remains that if there’s one skill the Dutch lack, it’s the ability to properly park an automobile. Continue reading