By Mikael Wood
6:00 AM PDT, April 19, 2013
When the Yeah Yeah Yeahs began making records in 2001, it would've been difficult to imagine the band someday doing a song as "Like a Prayer"-ish as "Sacrilege," the first track on its new album.
"Falling for a guy, fell down from the sky," frontwoman Karen O sings over a descending guitar figure, "Halo round his head, feathers in our bed." Later in the tune a gospel choir shows up -- as one did last weekend during the group's performance at Coachella, where it's to play again Friday night -- and pushes "Sacrilege" into true-blue power-in-the-midnight-hour territory.
Twelve years ago this wouldn't have been beyond Karen O and her bandmates as the result of an allergy to pop. A natural entertainer given to wild costumes and funny voices, the singer was by far the most showbiz-inclined member of the early-'00s New York rock scene that produced the Yeah Yeah Yeahs along with the Strokes and Interpol; compared to the mumbly, low-affect likes of Julian Casablancas and Paul Banks, Karen O was bringing some serious star power to the stage, even when the stage wasn't big enough to support it.
But back then the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were a scrappy little outfit -- voice, guitar, drums -- with no apparent knack for the sense of grandeur you get from "Sacrilege." They've evolved steadily since then, busting out an acoustic guitar for "Gold Lion," which opens 2006's "Show Your Bones," and peppering 2009's "It's Blitz!" with buzzing synthesizers. Now, on "Mosquito," the band's grasp has finally caught up with its reach.
Perhaps it just needed time: "Mosquito" ends the longest gap between Yeah Yeah Yeahs records, a four-year stretch during which the members concentrated on other projects, including Karen O's experimental opera "Stop the Virgens" and guitarist Nick Zinner's sideman gigs with Santigold and Damon Albarn, among others. Last month drummer Brian Chase released a solo disc called "Drums & Drones."
You can hear those working experiences reflected in the detailed textures and the expansive structures of "Mosquito," especially in ballads such as the gorgeous "Wedding Song" and in "Subway," which rumbles along atop a fuzzy field recording of New York City mass transit. "I lost you on a subway car / Got caught without my MetroCard," Karen O sings in her most delicate falsetto, "I waited for the express train / Gotta catch up with you wherever you are."
More uptempo cuts feature new colors as well, including the drum-machined "Always" and "Buried Alive," a staticky, reverb-heavy collaboration with James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem and the rapper Kool Keith in his Dr. Octagon guise.
Yet the album's sonic sophistication never impedes the primal charge the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have always delivered. Over Zinner's dive-bombing guitar riff in "Slave," Karen O tries to figure out what's eating her soul. "Area 52" finds her tuning in to messages from outer space (and also possibly Iggy Pop).
In the title track the singer uses a heavy, rolling groove to threaten-slash-seduce someone, promising over and over again, "I'll suck your blood!" And "Despair" both lives up to and repudiates its title; it's about "wasted days" and "wasted nights" but climaxes in a pummelling psych-soul freak-out that feels like a celebration.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
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