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Review: 'Mosquito' by Yeah Yeah Yeahs; 'Smokin Flames' by Hymn for Her

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Yeah Yeah Yeahs

"Mosquito"

(Interscope)

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 during the group's performance at Coachella — 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 with 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 up-tempo 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 pummeling psych-soul freak-out that feels like a celebration.

— Mikael Wood

Hymn for Her

"Smokin Flames"

(H4H Records)

Lucy Tight and Wayne Waxing, the stage names of the musical couple hailing from Philadelphia and specializing in grass-roots tours of off-the-map dives, seem to have found the nexus of roots rock, punk and high-octane hard rock with their second album, "Smokin Flames."

At the crux of their stripped-down sound are Waxing's thunderous drums and Tight's shredding, cranked-to-10 licks on a Lowebow cigar-box guitar played with a slide, referencing such old-school sources as bluesman Elmore James and latter-day proponents starting with Jack White.

Their songs sound born of the soil they trod on their low-fi road trips across the expansive landscape of the U.S., signaled in the opening track, "Mojave." There's real poetry in the piled up lyrics that mimic a high-speed cruise in open spaces: "Roadrunner gas guzzler gainin speed / Firebird thunderbird snowbird / Soarin south to the sea."

The thematic range extending from an explosive rocker such as "Mojave" to the bouncy ecology treatise "Trash the Sun" to a haunting sketch of familial tragedy in "Ivy Pacheko" gives Hymn for Her greater scope than the garden-variety hard-rock and punk acts, and the amped-up sonic punch provides a visceral leg up over many acoustic-driven Americana bands.

Besides all that, it's just plain fun.

— Randy Lewis

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