Yeah Yeah Yeahs
It has been a while, Dear Karen O. I thought it was your fault… now I believe it’s mine.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs debut album, Fever to Tell, came out in 2003. They appeared as another bass-less group following on the path of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, White Stripes, Black Keys and the many who were stripping down their music and saving on a four strings instrumentalist. A fashionable thing those days.
Differently from the bluesy acts above, Yeah Yeah Yeahs (shortened as YYYs) aimed at revolutionizing garage guitar. They had all the ingredients of the above including what those bands are missing, a flamboyant front woman at singing duties capable of shifting the genre towards mainstream.
Fever to Tell is a raw collection of pop songs hidden behind guitar based garage and, towards the end of the album song-list, contains one of the few hymns of the past decade: Maps. A song that managed to conquer a place among Rolling Stone 500 songs of all times. Quite an achievement considering it is sitting between Ray Charles, Pink Floyd, Radiohead and Sam Cooke. Not really a Rolling Stone band, still the single was irresistible even to their panel of grown up rockstars forming the jury.
It was April 2004, which means almost 10 years ago, when I entered the Forum to see YYYs live in one of their first London appearances.
Sadly, I was not impressed by that concert. And disappointingly. Because I was a big fan of the album, and had a massive expectation of what could come out from the gig.
It was probably early days, not much stage experience, not enough songs to fill up a hour of music.
A missed chance.
With almost a million copies sold of the debut, hard promotion, endless touring and the second-difficult-album anxiety, It took YYYs about three years to release the follow up. A very long time even in times when the drop of music sales and the overcrowded scene demands for longer gaps in album releases compared to the rock heydays.
Show Your Bones was out in 2006 and despite the title gave (to me) the impression of a rougher direction, it is quieter and less aggressive than Fever To Tell. Reviewers jumped on it and were quite biased, as it usually happens for highly expected comebacks. The Guardian example is sibylline with an ecstatic 5 stars review on the Monthly Music Observer’s magazine and a 2 stars review on the main paper five days later.
I think the best way to measure an album erasing the hype is to wait few years, and time says that Show Your Bones hasn’t got any close to the sexual and sensual appeal of Fever To Tell.
This is the time when I lost touch with YYYs, hijacked to the rise of folk infused, forest sounding acoustic music which was casting dark shadows on New York concrete garages. And, surprise, also the time when they lost the match with Black Keys and White Stripes. Blues is N.1 as Jon Spencer has been singing for ages.
It’s 2009. Three more years. Third album, It’s Blitz is out. I wasn’t paying much attention anymore but the opening track, Zero, was a blast. Impossible to ignore such a progression. And few more follows, Heads Will Roll, Soft Shock and Skeletons are brilliant songs singing the best ‘Side A’ of the millennium. Yeah Yeah Yeahs sound changed. It’s much brighter and ‘big’, still fresher than they have ever been. It’s pop, great pop music.
Karen O looked in great shape, as if she managed to find, at last, her comfort zone in a much more mainstream place. Still aggressive, still colourful, still YYYs, still New York (Brooklyn brought the Big Apple back in fashion). She’s not Lady Gaga, but aims at same big things.
Her two faithful musicians, guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase, are still with her.
Let’s praise them because in the years they have adapted from bass-free garage to almost mainstream pop with a professionalism, coherence and keeping a quality which is rare to find.
The sharp sound of It’s Blitz comes out of the production of Nick Launay (earlier with Nick Cave and Arcade Fire) and David Andrew Sitek of TV on the Radio clearly moved the band out of that roughness that was constraining Karen O in the wrong place. It is not of all bands to resurrect from a disappointing sophomore album, but YYYs did.
The clear sign was in the difficulty related to try to photograph them. No way to get a photopass, and I tried hard.
The rollercoaster wasn’t to stop. At the beginning of 2013 (and three further years from It’s Blitz) Mosquito was announced with what is probably the second worst title + cover art of the year following only the embarassing Eric Clapton’s Old Sock.
Not a great start, but the worst is inside. Mosquito is slower than It’s Blitz, it has a couple of interesting passages, but it is not any close to be as good as its predecessor. Sacrilege the opening song shows the album limits. It sounds confused and confusing, it shows the band isn’t happy anymore (why!?) with the place they find with It’s Blitz but doesn’t know where it wants to go.
The feel is we have to wait three more years to know. If they maintain to the ‘binary’ tradition the next shall be a good album. if it is too late by that time is up to Karen O and friends to prove me wrong again, they managed once.
Concert-photography-wise things got easier. A sign of a band stepping down from stardom. In May I was invited to photograph their ATP curated festival at Alexandra Palace, the only UK date at the time. A nice line-up but the call arrived too late and I was already booked for a sunny bank holiday weekend elsewhere.
So as a great relief it came the chance to recover from the missed occasion and to photograph YYYs at the cosy Islington Academy. It’s their midweek London stop sitting between their T in the Park and Latitude weekend festival slots.
The concert was great. Awesome. Amazing. Incredible.
It sounds lazy to write but the live show is much better from the album and so much improved from that 2004 gig.
Karen O in the years has become a glam rockstar as precious as she is rare. Strong attitude, humour, theatre, connections with fans all in well balanced doses. And the voice, powerful and romantic. Plus a band standing there playing great music.
Where Karen O is colourful, dressed-up, jumping, showing-off, Nick Zinner and Brian Chase are black dressed, silent, concentrated looking shy. They are the band’s backbone controlling everything happens on stage. They cut the riffs, the tempo and fuse the band. Even when Karen O make them restart a song three times or when Nick has to change guitar last second to replace an effect.
There is a keyboardist (who even plays bass!) who joins them on tour for few years now.
I felt a strange feeling at this gig, it really looked as a missed occasion, not the show, Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the whole. This is a band that had the potential to fill up stadiums and they didn’t manage to do it. If it is bad management (they’re on a major) or for the alternating quality of their albums that lost fans in the way, I don’ know.
Karen O would look great on a big arena. She has the confidence and the body language to handle any stage. They can rock as hell but also have the pop songs and the singalong choruses.
They can make people dance and jump but can slow down the pace with romantic love songs. They even have the name.
The London setlist missed few hits and ran just over a hour, but was much more harmonious of the playlist I am “spotifying” with the same songs picked from the four different albums. People went home happy and satisfied.
I will be waiting for the moment a huge concert happen, but the feel is that the blitz has passed.
The guy of the crew, just before the start, gathered all music photographers, about ten of us in a very tiny pit, to advice of being careful with some confetti canons quite literally pointing at us.
He could not say when Karen O was going to push the button to fire them. It is up to her. It wasn’t dangerous, still… beware! The message is, she is in control.
Karen O is one of those unpredictable performers as Amanda Palmer to name one. It’s fun to photograph but the best conditions to do so – i.e. to have space to run after her – were not those at the Islington Academy tonight.
The consequence (and one of the tips) is to spend the 3 songs without ever leaving the eye from the viewfinder. Even so I missed few good shots, as when she was spitting water in the air or towards us. She plays hyde and seek, she does not reveal what is going to happen next.
To complicate things the lights moved from white balanced to horribly led driven blu-ish every tenth of a second. More randomization in an already unforeseeable process.
When I sense such unpredictability, on all fronts, what I follow is a simple procedure. Safe mode on.
Keep calm and don’t move. I couldn’t literally move and I was on the wrong side. It happens.
I am confident (it took about 10 years) I’ll get few shots anyway and I learnt that it is not a concert shot that will change my photographer’s career. Unless the rules change we (as concert photographers) all take the same images. So, there is no point on trying to change position which could deliver a couple of slightly better shots and simultaneously piss off a wall of snappers.
It is frustrating to wait, even 2 seconds when you have few minutes, but I know she’ll come close. These kind of performers want to embrace the whole crowd and move around a lot to make everyone happy.
If you run towards Karen O what you’ll get for sure is to annoy all the photographers while seeing her coming back to your original spot just when you left that.
So, busy pit, no space to move and a Karen O running all over the place?
Best technique is the wildlife photographers’, hide, wait and be ready. Never leave that viewfinder to chimp on your monitor. They are there, you can see them in less then ten minutes.
Update. Despite being on the wrong side, despite being one of many ‘togs in the pit, my photo was picked by The Observer in UK to review this show. Needed to share, it feels rewarding.