Secret Meeting score: 83
by Joseph Purcell
Before the sad decline of the NME to little more than advertising filler, it was a publication synonymous with breaking the best in new music. As a teenager at the turn of the century, we were living in an era before social media and before streaming sites had taken hold of and throttled much of the romanticism out of music. It was the key source of information on new music, bands and idols. Cover shoots of The Strokes, White Stripes and The Libertines thrilled me and truly ignited a lifelong obsession with all things music: vinyl, CDs, Gigs, festivals, and even a few dodgy haircuts. It was also in this publication that I first read about the focus of this week’s Essential Album piece: The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and their debut record, Fever To Tell.
Earlier in 2003, Jack White had released his, as yet, unmatched career high long form, Elephant, and the thundering lines of Seven Nation Army had become the heartbeat of the alt-guitar scene. Detroit, with White and with their contemporaries The Von Bondies, was making a stake to be the fulcrum of alternative music. With The Strokes still putting the finishing touches to what would be their criminally undervalued second record, Room on Fire, it seemed the bands of Detroit would command the airwaves of the summer. But into this vacuum burst Karen O, Nick Zinner and Brian Chase, collectively known as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. With a barrage of razor sharp guitars, impeccable drums – played at an oddly jerky yet perfect tempo – and a singer who captivated, with her peacock feathers displayed in a stunning, shimmering strut, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs captured my imagination and have continued to thrill since.
Fever to Tell became the blueprint for their signature sound. It encompassed the band perfectly – channelling the vigour and raw power of the city they called home, New York. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs sound emits a rawness and a sweaty intimacy that concocts imagery of packed Big Apple clubs, rammed with a patchwork of humanity that makes it such a melting pot of creativity. Fever To Tell perfectly displays the incredible fusion of its three principle music makers, with the record perfectly honed by the production duties of TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek (Foals, Beck, Liars).
The album starts at an incredible tempo that sets the scene for what is to come across the next 36 minutes. From the first ear seducing words of I’m Rich, Fever To Tell excites, enthrals and grips the listener, but it’s second track, Date With The Night, that really epitomises the swagger of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, as a thundering drumbeat and Nick Zinner’s chainsaw guitar is met by Karen O’s vocal acrobatics – ‘I’ll set you, I’ll set it off… I got a date with the night, chow chow chow’.
Tick, Black Tongue and Pin continue the intense pace of Fever to Tell. Tick bursts with aggression and delight in equal quantities. Black Tongue is flawless- a frenzy of sound building to a fever pitch of primal screams – ‘Boy, you just a stupid bitch and girl you just a no good dick’, are howled and spat throughout. Pin follows with exactly two minutes of gut punching perfection. This was the track that gripped me from the first listen and typifies the genius of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in a perfect punk infused wrath.
The pace of Fever to Tell still doesn’t abate to draw breath as Cold Light, No No No and Y Control all delight with their fusions of the three protagonists, but it is on the incredible and poignant Maps that the true brilliance of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs comes sharply into focus. After the breakneck speed and ferocity of the first nine tracks, Maps is a moment for reflection- a snapshot that perfectly displays the incredible vocal talents of Karen O. It is here that she flits from the raging banshee to a singer of emotional poise. Maps is a beautiful song conveying perfectly both the highs and lows of relationships, and epitomises the emotional turmoil that can often come. Karen O’s delivery of the words, ‘Wait, they don’t love you like I love you’, ache with heartfelt experience, and it is simply a wonderful song showcasing the full array of talents of such an incredible band at their peak.
Throughout, Karen O, the band’s leader, howls with ferocity – enchanting stomps of delight – and is a figurehead who emits the air of a seductress who will savage you at a moment’s notice. In a scene dominated by effortlessly cool, male frontmen, Karen O is an alpha female with a mesmeric concoction of body movement, bright clothes and yelps of sass. On Fever to Tell, Karen O cuts through the record- her confidence and vigour separating her from her contemporaries. Her ability to flit from balls out fury to expressions of emotionally channelled turmoil place her firmly in line as the anointed successor to Debbie Harry as the queen of the New York underground.
And Fever To Tell also finds multi-instrumentalist, Nick Zinner, in peak form- as his cacophony of feedback creates an elaborate wall of sound which has so many moving parts, yet is so perfect in its basic simplicity. Therefore allowing the voice of Karen O to thrill, throttle and tantalise the listener. Zinner drives his guitar into creating otherworldly sounds quite like no one before him. He has a uniqueness to his style that allows the band to create a bombastic fullness that mesmerises. While on drums, Brian Chase is the heartbeat of the album; the consistent backdrop that anchors the riffs of Zinner and the whirling howls of Karen O. The genius of Chase is his ability to leave space for the fusion of their sound to ignite and explode.
Fever to Tell is the guttural sound of New York City, and a band at their primal pomp. Yeah Yeah Yeahs may have gone onto enjoy more widespread commercial success with the avant-rock disco synth fusion album of It’s Blitz! – which featured, arguably, their biggest cross over hits, Zero and Heads will Roll – but Fever To Tell captures the raw energy and vulnerability with which they burst onto the scene. And for this reason, it is, in my eyes, one of the most important debut records of the noughties.