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





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