Art-pop trio the Yeah Yeah Yeahs start with a foundation of distress and build from there. Sometimes there's a small gust of relief blowing through the NYC band's anxious songs, as on 2003 breakout single Maps and its pleading refrain "Wait! They don't love you like I love you!"
But more often than not, their manic energy heightens and swarms, such as on '09's unlikely dance hit Heads Will Roll and its odd synth-punk demand: "Off with your head! Dance 'til your dead!"
On epically minded new album Mosquito, their fourth and finest overall effort, the YYYs' varying degrees of unsettlement are once again juiced by metronomic rock drummer Brian Chase and guitarist Nick Zinner, who wields his instrument like a bug-eyed man in a knife fight. Still, there's no mistaking who the sparking live wire is driving this inventive, infectious crew of misfits: that fascinating worrywart Karen O, arguably the greatest frontwoman of her generation.
For some of you, O is best known as the banshee who joined Trent Reznor for a hair-raising cover of Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song on the opening credits of David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. There are times her howl got so high on that incendiary rendition, she made Robert Plant sound like Louis Armstrong.
On Mosquito's first cut and lead single, Sacrilege, O is seemingly subdued, opening with a deceptive mid-range coo ("Fallen for a guy / Who fell down from the sky"). Soon enough, though, Zinner and Chase pierce the balloon and O's vocal takes off in a shrieking panic. Upping the ante even more, the YYYs end Sacrilege with a wailing 20-piece gospel choir coda. And that's just the first three minutes, 50 seconds.
O & Co. ease up on the next song — well, kind of. Subway is slow and uneasy. With rackety train effects tunneling through the moody track, O embraces a neo-torch delivery as she loses her man on the metro, maybe for good. Sans love or security (or at least the facade of each) she fails to recognize herself: "Look at you, whoever you are." When the crowd starts to stare at her, it all enters eerie David Lynch territory. Even with the brakes on, the YYYs can steal your breath.
O started her career as a raven-haired, ripped-fishnets wild child with dangerous mood swings. She's platinum blond now, married, a better dresser. But her uniquely elastic voice, and those moods, continue to thrash with animalistic abandon, from Mosquito's taunting title track to Bowie-esque rumination Slave to '80s New Wave-y These Paths.
Produced by TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek, each song is layered, and layered again, with headphone effects and sonic surprises (rapper Dr. Octagon on Buried Alive). If there's a complaint it's that Sitek doesn't provoke O into going off the rails enough.
Still, you can't complain about the album's finale of Despair and Wedding Song, the prettiest 10 minutes in the YYYs' catalog, a gauzy sea of crescendoes, rippling guitar and femme fatale Karen O reaching through the haze for some relief from this nervous life. Is it wrong to hope she never quite finds it?
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected]