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Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Mosquito Album Review
22-04-2013 07:54 | 1 comment(s)
Yeah Yeah Yeahs There's a refrain you often hear about bands running on the sort of quick-burning demon energy that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were channeling in the early part of the last decade: You had to be there. But on rare occasions, a band will make a record so thick with atmosphere that "being there" is just a matter of pushing play. Yeah Yeah Yeahs' 2003 debut, Fever to Tell, is one of those achievements: Even if you didn't make it to one of the infamous early New York shows and have the pleasure of getting your glasses sprinkled with the beery spit of a grinning, lipstick-smeared frontwoman in tattered Christian Joy, the record itself did a commendable job of bottling that experience. It was a debut that aced music's classic chemistry lesson: Combine a few unlikely, molten compounds, take a step back, and wait for the bang.
When they put out their second album, it seemed, at least at the time, like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were growing up too fast. Show Your Bones favored songcraft over shambolic energy, and sounded disappointingly tame on the heels of Fever's maniacal night-sweats. (It was also the beginning of a creative schism in the band; as Zinner told Spin in 2006, "I didn't want to write and record in a studio... I just wanted to do demos on a four-track in somebody's apartment." He lost that argument.) But in the long run, Bones has aged remarkably well, and now feels like a pivotal moment in the band's arc, setting the tone for a career of evolution, reinvention, and constant forward motion; 2009's excellent It's Blitz! was a record of glammy, neo-Blondie avant-pop, staying true to their quirks but successfully expanding their range.
Mosquito, the group's fourth record, is its first step backwards. It feels uncharacteristic, calling to mind a lot of words that have never fit this band before: confused, dreary, uninspired, and-- on one particularly baffling song about aliens-- uncool. Karen may have bleached her hair electric blonde and donned some inspired, tinselly Elvis suits, but for once the band hasn't applied a similarly gleeful spirit of reinvention to its sound. Instead, Mosquito aims for more of a back-to-basics approach. "We have this shitty little downtown studio [in New York] that belongs to us," Karen said in a recent Pitchfork interview, "so we wrote songs and recorded demos whenever we felt inspired; it was kind of like Fever to Tell and our first demo." But the often limp Mosquito lacks their earlier material's spark.
Mosquito is not without highlights, but it requires some patience to unearth them, because when this record is bad, it's loudly, brazenly bad. "Area 52" is probably the lowest point in the band's catalog; its lyrics have a Spinal Tap syntax ("Message came from outer space/ Future of the human race") that makes it play like self-parody. The song also features an uncharacteristically wooden vocal from Karen, who's eventually drowned out by a wash of spacey blips and bleeps. At least she sounds like she's having a little more fun with "Mosquito", but even her trademark charisma can't inject a sting into the weak chorus ("They'll suck your blood! They'll suck your blood!" she tries, over and over). It's surprising how off the mark these songs sound coming from a band who used to be able to do goofy well. The upbeat songs on Fever careened with a wobbly, inebriated energy, but whenever Mosquito aims for "zany" or "light," it teeters around like an exhibitionist "drunk" on non-alcoholic beer.
"Mosquito" should have been a B-side at best, but the fact that it's the title track-- and the inspiration for the garish, David-Cronenberg-vomiting-on-a-Garbage-Pail-Kids-card cover art-- makes it that much harder to ignore. That a thin, overly literal song like "Mosquito" is at the center of the artistic statement they're trying to make only makes this album more of a head-scratcher. Whatever's holding this collection of songs together never quite congeals-- a problem exemplified by the James Murphy-produced "Buried Alive", a moody, nocturnal groove interrupted halfway through by a verse from Dr. Octagon (the high-concept, time-traveling alien persona of avant-rap legend Kool Keith) that lands in the song with a heavy thud.
On repeated listens, though, a few diamonds emerge in the rough. Built around Zinner's expectant single-note riff, the gradual crescendo of "Despair" plays like a more muted take on Show Your Bones' best single, "Cheated Hearts", though its refrain is even more poignant. "Oh despair, you've always been there," Karen sings with the perfect combination of exhaustion and defiance, "You were there through my wasted years... there through my wasted life." The closing track, "Wedding Song" (which Karen sang to her husband Barney Clay at their 2011 wedding reception) sounds a bit like a happy-ending sequel to "Maps", brooding with a similar emotional intensity ("In flames I sleep soundly/ With angels around me"). But the most promising-- and perhaps only truly new-- avenue the band wanders down on Mosquito is "Subway", a subtle, evocative sound collage driven by Karen's falsetto and the percussive churn of a train on the track. It's heavy on conceptual follow-through and finely crafted atmosphere on a record where both are in short supply.
On their best and most smartly sequenced albums, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs create a sense that their bratty swagger and disarming vulnerability were emanating from the same power source. In the wake of Fever's amped-up "Date With the Night" or "Tick", "Maps" feels like an inevitable come-down, but the songs on Mosquito don't feed off each other in the same way. The album's most keyed-up moment comes early, in the solid lead-off single "Sacrilege", but when a gospel choir storms the song's closing coda it feels unprompted-- this is a band that used to be able to kindle the same kind of fire from the minimal components of its own chemistry. Still, even if Mosquito suggests otherwise, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' much-lauded SXSW showing and recent homecoming performances in New York prove that magic can still happen for them on stage. Maybe now you just have to be there.



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