10 Years Ago: Yeah Yeah Yeahs Skirt the Sophomore Jinx With ‘Show Your Bones’
The second Yeah Yeah Yeahs album, Show Your Bones, almost didn’t happen at all. When it came time to put a new batch of songs together for the follow-up to their 2003 debut, Fever To Tell, the struggle to stay relevant nearly tore the trio asunder.
Fever To Tell arrived more like an air strike than an album, strafing the pop culture landscape with an unrelenting barrage of raw, sometimes downright brutal rock ‘n’ roll. Stripped down the bare essentials of feral vocals, rabid guitar riffs and primal drums, it served notice that the Strokes weren’t the only New York City band capable of stitching together something new from the frayed threads of garage rock and post-punk. The album made the Yeah Yeah Yeahs indie rock’s “it” band (sure, it was released on Interscope, but the band had already established an unassailable cache of indie cred with their first couple of EPs).
But there’s a very good reason the cliché about the “difficult second album” exists; like many clichés, it’s also a truism. And if ever there was a threesome ripe for that scenario, it was Karen O, guitarist-keyboardist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase. Fever To Tell had taken them from underground buzz band to bona fide rock stardom; it earned them a Grammy nomination and landed them on countless year-end lists. Suddenly, they were forced to either top it or fold up their tent and go home. And, at one particularly hairy point in the process, it looked like they might actually wind up choosing the latter option.
They began working on material in earnest, but the trio reached a point where they started to fear they were in danger of churning out tunes that did nothing more than provide pale replicas of the last batch of songs. Realizing that was the last thing they wanted to do, they scrapped everything. The band later said things got so tense, they came perilously close to breaking up.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Instead, they got over the hump, taking a tabula rasa approach and crafting a new group of tunes that managed to maintain the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' musical identity without foisting Fever To Tell Pt. II on the world. Of course, a straight-up sequel to their debut would probably have suited plenty of their fans just fine, which makes the path the band took even more admirable.
With the aid of produers Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio and Squeak E. Clean (Sam Spiegel – the brother of Karen O's boyfriend Spike Jonze), the band camped out at Sitek's Williamsburg studio, Stay Gold, and did their damnedest to reinvent their approach to making music. Of course, their basic sonic DNA remained the same. But when the dust finally settled and Show Your Bones met the world on March 22, 2006, it clearly represented a step up the evolutionary ladder.
It’s obvious from the first notes of the album that something different is afoot; acoustic guitar helps introduce the the beginning of “Gold Lion,” and wobbly but carefully placed keyboard lines help solidify the atmosphere of the mid-tempo tune. Clearly, the band had started to use the studio as a part of the creative process rather than a place to simply capture audio vérité arrangements.
Like “Gold Lion,” “Way Out” also bears a relatively restrained feel until Zinner finally opens up the throttle about halfway through. Though “Fancy” is powered by gigantic, sludgy guitar riffs and bone-breaker drums, it breaks down to near-silence three-quarters of the way in, shifting dynamics drastically to a quiet keyboard part before the guitar comes blasting back in again.
From the syncopated, funky feel to its “something like a phenomena” refrain, “Phenomena” seems like a nod to ‘80s New York punk-funk pioneers Liquid Liquid, whose “Cavern” was famously sampled sans remuneration for Melle Mel’s hip-hop hit “White Lines,” with the line “slipping in and out of phenomenon” changed to “something like a phenomenon.” The spiky riff and savage stomp of “Honeybear” serve as a reminder that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs can still kick it as lean and mean as ever, but even here, there’s a greater sophistication to the arrangement than anything from Fever To Tell.
Despite the distorted riffs running through “Cheated Hearts,” Karen O’s vocal line bears a melodic arc that’s pretty close to a pop hook – so does her singing on “Dudley,” which also sports some impressively textured guitar tones that start out sounding downright frothy. The overall effect is not unlike something from the heyday of Blondie. “Sweets” is an ultra low-key cut powered chiefly by acoustic guitar and some small-scale lo-fi beats that might not even be from a full-fledged drum kit.
By the time Show Your Bones closes out with “Turn Into” (which starts out sounding like an unplugged campfire jam before kicking into a rapid-fire electric strum offset by pointed piano lines), Karen O, Zinner and Chase have manifestly made their point. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs would not be stuck in a rut of their own making. And not only did they manage to keep their musical vision moving, they even solidified their commercial standing, with the album vastly improving on its predecessor’s chart placement and earning yet another Grammy nomination. All in all, a pretty impressive way to outfox the sophomore jinx.