In The Ring: Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ ‘Fever To Tell’ v ‘It’s Blitz!’
Which album reigns supreme?
In The Ring is a Music Junkee column in which we look at two classic albums from one beloved act to see which fares the best when they’re put head-to-head.
Today, we look at New York outfit Yeah Yeah Yeahs and their albums Fever To Tell (2003), and It’s Blitz! (2009).
Fever To Tell
THE LEAD UP
Let’s start at the beginning: Formed in 2000, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are drummer Brian Chase, guitarist Nick Zinner and singer Karen O. Sonically, they’re the children of the 1970s underground scene in New York; garage rock, New Wave and art-punk all rolled into one.
Prior to the release of Fever to Tell, the band had released a pair of EPs — 2001’s Yeah Yeah Yeahs and 2002’s Machine — that had thrust them well into the spotlight. There was a lot riding on the success of their debut album — when push came to shove, could they deliver? Or would they be another victim of the overhype machine?
Fever To Tell-era Yeah Yeah Yeahs were like a shark: if they stopped moving, they’d die. Aside from cuts like ‘Maps’ and ‘Modern Romance’, Fever is relentless — it sounds exactly how a band fronted by a perpetual motion machine would sound.
Fever To Tell was released in 2003, and in the wake of 9/11, that urgency makes sense. “You never knew how long anything was going to last”, lead singer Karen O explained in Meet Me In The Bathroom, Lizzy Goodman’s oral history of 2000s New York rock. “Every moment was ephemeral.”
The world could end in the next 40 minutes, so you better get dancing.
Fever To Tell hits the ground running. The way O snarls her vocals on ‘Rich’ (“I’ll take you out, boy!”), along with Nick Zinner’s fuzzy guitars and Brian Chase’s booming drums on ‘Date With The Night’ is one of the best one-two punches in any album, ever.
Fever is relentless — it sounds exactly how a band fronted by a perpetual motion machine would sound.
The album hits peak punk with the track ‘Pin’ — a song about the self-inflicted pain of getting back with an ex (“I’m gonna sleep with him/Sticking in the pin”) — with O frantically screaming along with the guitar riff.
On ‘Y Control’ Chase’s thunderous percussion combines with Zinner’s ferocious guitar, while O’s sings about an emotionally manipulative relationship, mourning everything her partner had taken from her. Sound wise; it’s the blueprint for every essential Yeah Yeah Yeahs track.
And then there’s ‘Maps’, with that iconic guitar riff, those heavy drums, and O’s sudden and surprising vulnerability. It’s one of the greatest love songs this century.
‘Tick’ is grating, ‘Cold Light’ is the song you forget is on the album because it sounds like indistinct filler, and ‘No No No’ ends with an extended instrumental jam that feels totally superfluous.
These songs aren’t terrible (the only thing I’d actively skip is that jam sequence), but they’re not as thought out and fully formed as the rest of the album.
There was a lot riding on the success of Fever To Tell. Prior to its release, the band had released a pair of EPs that had thrust them into the spotlight. When push came to shove, could they deliver or would they be another victim of the hype machine?
‘Maps’ has become the Yeah Yeah Yeahs song, the one that will define them now and forever.
Fever to Tell more lived up to the hype. It received a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album, and The New York Times named it the best album of 2003. It also received a ton of love during the end of decade list round-up: NME declared it the fifth best album of the 2000s, while Pitchfork and Rolling Stone ranked it 24th and 28th, respectively.
The album’s big hit was ‘Maps’, which when released as a single caused the album’s sales to triple. The album ended up selling over a million copies worldwide, and was certified gold in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Pitchfork named ‘Maps’ the sixth best song of the 2000s.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were already a hot band before Fever, but its release is what cemented them as one of the defining rock acts of the 2000s. They became a major player in the New York rock boom, standing alongside contemporaries like The Strokes, Interpol, and TV on the Radio. Karen O became an icon.
‘Maps’ has become the Yeah Yeah Yeahs song, the one that will define them now and forever. The hook for Beyonce’s ‘Hold Up’ — “They don’t love you like I love you” — is just the chorus from ‘Maps’, included by co-writer Ezra Koenig.
It also influenced Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Since U Been Gone’; although O would later describe hearing Clarkson’s interpretation as being like getting bit by a “poisonous varmint.”
THE LEAD UP
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were still riding high when It’s Blitz! was released in 2009. They’d released a successful sophomore record in 2006, Show Your Bones, along with their third EP, 2007’s Is Is.
To write and record their third album, the band sequestered themselves at the Sonic Ranch studio in El Paso with their longtime producer Dave Sitek (he’d been at the helm for Fever and Bones) sequestered themselves at the Sonic Ranch studio in El Paso.
Shock! Horror! The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have traded in their guitars for synthesizers!
Outside of its cleaner production, there’s no hint of this electro-transition on Show Your Bones — the album released in between Fever and Blitz!. There is no greater tragedy than when a band tries a new sound only to fall flat on their faces, but the YYYs pull it off with aplomb.
As a whole, the band are a tighter unit than they were on Fever. They’ve now had time to figure out their sound, and let it evolve naturally — and the result of that is a more varied, mature, and frankly better-sounding album. They no longer feel like they need to flatten you with a wall of sound.
Karen O feels less scattered, less reckless — the energy is still there, but it no longer feels like she’s repeatedly hurling herself into a wall and rolling in broken glass while performing.
Outside of ‘Zeroes’ and ‘Heads Will Roll’, It’s Blitz! contains less big singles compared to Fever To Tell — but this, thankfully, isn’t an indication of the overall quality.
With its throbbing synths, ‘Zero’ is the YYYs true club banger. The dream-pop sound of ‘Hysteric’ offers the same emotional vulnerability of ‘Maps’ (and is the best sounding track on the album), while the tenderness of ‘Skeleton’ and ‘Little Shadow’ captures the Less Is More mantra of It’s Blitz!.
‘Soft Shock’ starts intimately — O serenades us with soothing vocals — but Zinner and Chase slowly build towards a climax that explodes with the kind of chaotic energy you’d expect from a Yeah Yeah Yeahs song.
‘Heads Will Roll’ is the natural evolution of ‘Y Control’s dance-punk sound. Its synth riff sounds like the organ hymn of a church that worships violent dancing. Richard Ayoade’s accompanying music video is also the band’s best (and the best werewolf movie of the last two decades).
The album drags its feet a bit around the middle/three-quarter mark. ‘Shame and Fortune’ has the personality of an older Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ song, but lacks the spirit. ‘Runaway’ adheres to the album’s calmer sound, but comes across as dull and somewhat generic, interchangeable indie-pop. It’s ‘Soft Shock’ and ‘Little Shadow’ done wrong.
That generic indie-pop sound also plagues ‘Dragon Queen’.
Critically, Blitz! was about as well reviewed as Fever to Tell. Depending on the publication it was sometimes better; Pitchfork gave it an 8.1 over Fever’s 7.4. It netted the band their third nomination for Best Alternative Music Album at the 2010 Grammy Awards. Spin rated it the second best album of 2009; NME rated it third.
It didn’t sell as well as Fever to Tell — especially in the United States — but it managed to be certified gold in both Australia and the United Kingdom.
It’s Blitz! didn’t receive the same type of capital-I Importance as Fever To Tell, but ‘Heads Will Roll’ is probably the band’s second most recognizable song, after ‘Maps’. Ask anyone who was between the ages of 16 to 24 when it was released and they probably have fond memories of getting ripped and dancing to ‘Heads Will Roll’ or ‘Zero’.
It sounds like a cop out, but these two albums are as close to equal as you’ll get: neither of their individual strengths or weaknesses gives them an edge over the other.
Fever to Tell has the raw attitude and frenetic energy, but It’s Blitz! is the band working at their peak, with a more developed and varied sound.
But Blitz! doesn’t win. It can’t win. Why? Because Fever To Tell is the more important album. It’s an integral part of the early 2000s rock renaissance, throwing down the gauntlet and declaring “This is how we do things now” alongside The Strokes’ Is This It?, Interpol’s Turn Off The Bright Lights and the White Stripes’ White Blood Cells.
15 years on, it’s still one of the cornerstones of 21st-century indie rock.
Chris Neill is a pop culture writer. He has definitely cried while listening to ‘Maps’. He tweets at @garflyf.