New York punk trio surpass media hype with cataclysmic debut

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It’s now two years since the British music press took leave of its senses in praise of The Strokes-a band whose only mistake was being merely very good when their excessively enthusiastic champions had us believe they were the saviours of rock’n’roll. Like the belated lionisation of The White Stripes that same year, the climate The Strokes instilled?a sometimes desperate reliance on the US underground as the source of hitherto untapped rock’n’roll thrills?seems to have endured.

Which is why, after last year’s introductory self-titled EP (five cuts of sparse, sassy, twangy power-punk) and its equally brilliant follow-up single “Machine”, this first album from fellow New Yorkers the Yeah Yeah Yeahs is already the most eagerly anticipated debut of 2003. The danger of such hype, of course, is that, like The Strokes, people can expect too much.

There’s nothing shockingly new about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs formula; it’s a fairly minimalist bass-free set-up of vocals (the enigmatic Karen O, somewhere between Polly Harvey and Poly Styrene), one guitar (Nick Zinner, somewhere between Link Wray and Jon Spencer) and drums (Brian Chase, somewhere between Art Blakey and Topper Headon).

And yet, in the cold sober light of day, every hysterical column inch already thrust upon them, including Uncut’s own pledge last summer that “the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are going to be COLOSSAL”, seems justified. Reason being that Fever To Tell is, quite simply, magnificent.

Twelve tracks and not a filler among them, Fever To Tell moves with calculated stealth. The first six songs alone cumulatively rival the opening halves of Nirvana’s Nevermind and The Pixies’ Surfer Rosa in terms of punk-guitar savagery, rhythmic brutality and lyrical audacity. Zinner’s riffs are from classic rock’n’roll stock but never sound second-hand (new single “Date With The Night” and “Black Tongue” twang like Dick Dale twang genius) while the echoing harmonic bleeps heralding “Rich” and “Y-Control” are inspired. But the real joy, and surprise, is Karen O, who exceeds all “new Courtney” press tags to emerge by the end of Fever To Tell as the most electrifying female voice since Polly Harvey. One moment she’s gorgeously provocative (“Boy you’re just a stupid bitch and girl you’re just a no-good dick!”), the next she’s a gibbering harpy hyperventilating through “Tick”.

The crunch comes with the album’s final third, where O’s voice assumes an emotional honesty that’ll knock you sideways. It begins with “Maps”, her earnest address to boyfriend Angus Andrews of The Liars (“they don’t love you like I love you”) sung with crucifying tenderness; it’s got ‘Love Song For A Generation’ written all over it. “Y-Control” is a bitterer pill, though just as stirring as O yearns “I wish I could buy back the woman you stole”.

Then the show-stopping “Modern Romance”, a sleepy Galaxie 500 drone over which O chirps with a vulnerable innocence not heard since Moe Tucker on the Velvets’ “After Hours”. And just when you think it’s over comes the killer blow of poignancy, the hidden track “Poor Song”, where Karen beseeches her betrothed “don’t be scared of love” and the crack in her voice tells you she means every syllable.

This is as revitalising a debut as could be hoped for. COLOSSAL, in fact.