The View From the Afternoon: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Fever to Tell

By Roman Salomone, Contributor

[Interscope Records; 2003]

Genres: Indie Rock, Dance-Punk, Garage Rock, Art Punk

Hey Rock Lobsters, I’m Roman and this is my first column, The View From the Afternoon. In this column, I’ll be taking a look back into some of rock’s most essential, overlooked, or just flat-out fun albums of the 2000s. 

Read more: 20,000 Albums for Eidelyn Gonzales: The Air Force

My reasoning for wanting to start this stems from two things. The first is that most attention for music that is not current is drawn to the late 60s into the mid-to-late 90s, often leaving out the aughts in this weird space of not being hated, but not loved unconditionally like the prior decades. Because of this, tons of phenomenal and significant records are unfairly disregarded by a massive portion of music fans. The second reason is that the 2000s is my favorite decade for music, but you’ve probably connected those dots already. Before I continue, the title is infact a reference to the first Arctic Monkeys album. If you picked up on that, give yourself a pat on the back. 

I figure if this column is going to be my own thing, I gotta start with a heavy hitter, and what better way to begin this with one of the most powerful and creatively-deadly records of all time: Fever to Tell by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs is an American rock band consisting of guitarist Nick Zinner, drummer Brian Chase, and vocalist/frontwoman Karen Orzolek, who goes by stage name Karen O. The band is known for fusing several styles and forms of indie rock and punk, usually creating these twisted dance-punk and garage rock hybrids into song. The band hails from New York City, but their roots trace back to when Orzolek and Chase met at Oberlin College in the late 90s, until Orzolek transferred to New York University a few years later. She then met Zinner, and the two started to play as an acoustic duo, but soon got tired of it and wanted to create something “trashy, punky, grimy”, and enlisted Chase to join them and form the trio we now know.

After a series of one-off singles and demos, the trio released their infamous self-titled and Machine EPs – ultimately causing enough buzz and hype to get them a deal with Interscope Records. This deal resulted in the creation of their full-length debut album. Fever to Tell was released on April 29, 2003. It also just so happens that Fever to Tell is one of the most badass things that’s ever been recorded. 

Before diving into this album, it’s important to talk about what makes the Yeah Yeah Yeahs different from a lot of groups around this time. The best place to start with that is by discussing Karen O as a frontwoman and a singer.

Karen O is a vocalist who’s difficult to fully explain. She clearly takes influence and can sing like  Kim Gordon or Sleater Kinney’s Corin Tucker, but that doesn’t explain even a sliver of her “talents”. I use that word with quotations because I’m not really sure if I can fully consider the noises her voice can produce as talent, but it’s certainly worth noting. It’s more like: “back of the class weird kid who would make ungodly sounds to annoy a substitute teacher” talents than anything. In between singing some fairly cute or maybe really heated vocals, she will often make some of the strangest vocals on the planet. Squeals, hisses, yelps, barks, moans, whistles, howls, are just a few of the most tame noises she can record through a microphone. One moment she can be singing very pleasantly and really carrying a tune out to be really catchy, and then in two seconds sound like Captain Beefheart’s insane niece trying to prove she can join his Magic Band

The secret weapon of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs has and always will be Nick Zinner, largely because of the way he plays, records, and constantly experiments. While an extraordinary guitar player, Zinner is just a flat out talented musician, and certainly a student of the “noise guitar” legends. Like, there’s no way this dude doesn’t make Lee Ranaldo proud. The lack of a bassist (let alone a second guitarist) means Zinner has to make up for a lot of the sonic mayhem. So of course, he chooses to max out all bandwidth frequencies on his amps’ EQ. His guitar tones sound like they are blowing out the cheapest knock-off Peavey combo unit he found on Craigslist. If you’re interested in anything gear or effect pedal related, absolutely check out the equipment rundown he did with Premier Guitar. You’ll see this dude is a mastermind of noises that sound like anything but a guitar.

Now to talk about the beast of Fever to Tell. The first half of this album runs almost seamlessly, with one hideous indie-rock-noise-punk monstrosity that somehow is danceable after another. “Rich” kicks the album off with what sounds like a synthesizer, but of course Zinner is absolutely overloading his guitar tone. Paired with Chase’s primitive beat and Karen O’s electrifying vocals, it presents this wild image that is a perfect introduction to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It also wouldn’t scare away the listener immediately. Karen O “sings” some noises that are basically weird croaking I guess you could call it? Demon noises maybe? I don’t know, you listen and then tell me what you think it could be called.

“Date with the Night” is the type of song that evokes the feeling of a “get in and floor it” in an action movie. It’s a genius song to place after the opener as it propels you into the rest of the album forcefully, as it’s speedy, sweaty, and fiery all at the same time. The fast disco drum groove is matched with just an awesome and loose guitar riff, almost like Zinner was pulling from The Stooges Funhouse on this one. Karen is as fired up as ever, ripping the track up with some MC5 style confidence, along with letting out some badass shrieks on the breakdowns. 

The album then hits its streak of short and thrashed-out ragers. “Man”, “Tick”, “Black Tongue”, “Pin”, and, “Cold Light” are all absolutely manic. They string together into a weird-punked out suite. The guitar work on “Man” makes it seem like Zinner  is trying to break all six strings by just playing them as intensely as he can. The following “Tick” might have one of the most manic and insane choruses for an indie rock song known to man. Karen O’s vocal melody on the chorus of “Pin” bounce and hop until the band hits these simple, staccato breaks that are unforgettable from first listen. “Black Tongue” holds some of the oddest drum grooves on the record and features some of Karen’s most absurd lyrics ever, and perhaps calling “Cold Light” a little bit hypersexual is possibly an understatement. 

“No No No” is the album’s intensity peak. It serves the purpose of a “Once in a Lifetime” in the way it separates the two sides of the album. The first half is loaded with as many speed-ups and slow-downs as it is left hooks and builds. There’s a breakdown that appears after the chorus that has this killer synced-up guitar riff and drum part. The second half of the track slows things down a lot more into a spacey and psychedelic outro that leads very nicely into the last portion of the record.

“Maps” is the single that pretty much grabbed the attention of the entire country and set it onto this album. Lyrically, the track may seem to be saying very little, but I think the song’s power comes almost solely from the gut-wrenching vocal performance Karen O gives. The music video for the track and the context of it paints a better picture than the lyrics themselves might. The video features the band awkwardly performing the song (or at least lip syncing it) on a small stage. Through the duration of the video, it becomes very apparent that Karen is getting more and more emotional, eventually beginning to cry around the 2:03 mark. In interviews discussing the track, she often tells the backstory of the video, in one case saying: “They were real tears. My boyfriend at the time was supposed to come to the shoot – he was three hours late and I was just about to leave for tour. I didn’t think he was even going to come and this was the song that was written for him. He eventually showed up and I got myself in a real emotional state.” 

Seemingly out of nowhere, this ballad comes in after eight blistering garage rock-trashers. It’s such a strange choice to have the song placed here in the tracklist, but the song is so stunning and full of sheer passion, it ends up becoming one of this album’s many beautiful quirks. “Maps” is an incredible song, and I don’t think there’s many people that would want to dispute that. And if you want to hate it, that’s okay. You’re probably a little bit evil, so just know that.

“Y Control” reels the record back into the more traditional indie rock song after the balladry of “Maps”. It fuses some of the more gentle passion of the prior track, but provides more energy and grit to it. It’s also important to note that the band kinda used this particular track’s feel as a blueprint for later songs, “Cheated Hearts” being arguably the most obvious example. The blistering guitar lead sounds similar to the one that opens “Rich”, but combined with Chase’s powerful dance-drum beat and an Interpol-esq chord progression, it makes for a song that really sticks out from others on the record. Karen provides such a captivating vocal performance, making the fairly simple lyrics elevated to such a profound emotional level.

“Modern Romance” is the second best song from the 2000s about what romance was like in the city, but since this album was largely sold on CD, it’s no surprise there’s a hidden track with “Poor Song” being almost an extension of the track. The tunes are overall really similar to each other, the way the tempos are about the same, both rely on only a few chords, and share similar subjects, with the latter being the more positive point of view on the matters. The first features some distant reversed guitar notes in the background that are clearly by way of Zinner’s experimentation. It also features a cute sleigh bell part towards the backend that’s not used once on any other track here. “Poor Song” holds easily Karen O’s most lowkey vocal performance on the entire album. Lyrically, it’s a great send off for the record as it’s just a really uplifting love song. The lines, “Well I may be just a fool / But I know you’re just as cool / And cool kids, they belong together” is about as iconic as it gets for indie rock.

Fever to Tell is just awesome. It might seem simple and straight-forward upon first try, but with repeated listens, it becomes an endless cycle of finding new details and layers to peel back. In terms of modern rock bands that know what a good performance means, few have done it better than these three, and this album is proof of that. The masterpiece crafted and all the chaos floating around it effortlessly continues to withstand the test of time. Few indie rock albums before or after possess this much character and passion, and without a doubt, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs made an undeniable classic.

Listen here: 

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