In publicity snaps for the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs album, It's Blitz!, singer Karen O is looking rather demure: cute brunette bob, quiet smile and, most notably, fancy upscale leggings. Do not underestimate this sartorial solemnity. This is an art-pop dervish who, for her first two fantastic albums, appeared on the brink of breakdown: sweaty mug, demon hair and shredded nylons that would have made Wendy O. Williams blush.
What gives, girl?
If you're thinking something has changed with the YYYs, you'd be right. First album Fever to Tell (2003) was about aggression, tempered and otherwise. Second disc Show Your Bones (2006) was a fractured sonic collage. It's Blitz! is their most accessible disc yet, a cleaner, calmer bid for a best-seller, but not a pandering one.
Recorded in the midst of a snowstorm in a 100-year-old New England barn — possibly the last place you'd imagine this spastic NYC art-pop trio to hole up — It's Blitz! is definitely a departure. But it's not unnatural; it's evolutionary, especially for a band seemingly born in the punked-out '70s but with leanings to the New Wave '80s.
Guitarist Nick Zinner, who typically strikes like a blade-wielding pickpocket, has fallen for a vintage ARP synthesizer, the same pulsating instrument used by the Cars. But Zinner is still a randy player, and when he gets those burbling electro notes to a feverish level, he picks up his guitar and fires a few bullets into the mix. Drummer Brian Chase can only pound away like an automaton, but the result, as on the youth-gone-wild head-spinner Zero, is nothing short of hot-stepping fantastic.
The band, famous for ferocious live shows, still brings great energy to their songs, even if they now often zone out in gauzy washes and ruminations about finding your youthful purpose in a het-up, confusing world. Heck, even their biggest hit, the yearning Maps ("Wait! They don't love you like I love you!"), had a nagging oomph underneath its ballad framework. In other words, it's just a matter of time until the YYYs go off like a rocket.
For all its catchy, pretty dance-pop leanings, this still ain't Lady Gaga. It's produced by TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek; he likes anthems but also strives for challenge over comfort.
And then there's Karen O. With a bittersweet voice that's part little girl, part wounded crow, the 30-year-old will remind you of Aimee Mann's sugary coo one second: as on the lovely Skeletons, which really does sound like a snowstorm ("Love my name / Love left dry / Frost or flame / Skeleton me"). Then she'll brat out like the Deal sisters in the Breeders: as on the bitter-love rager Shame and Fortune, in which O eggs on Zinner to pick up the guitar and show that's he still man enough. ("Shame is soft and safe / Lose when I play your game").
The release of a Yeah Yeah Yeahs album has become an event, at least for critics who long for invention but also swagger, a merging of mind and hot body. Plus there's no sense predicting where the YYYs will go next, and that's all part of the fun.
On the finale of It's Blitz!, a stunner called Little Shadows, you can't help but think Bono or Coldplay's Chris Martin would kill to write a song like this. Is that the YYYs' new direction? Anthemic UK rock? It's pretty to think so — and hopefully we won't have to wait so long to find out.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.