Y Control?

Karen O and cohorts put on a hell of a show. Too bad they were so nice about it.

Damn, there were some good haircuts at the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' show last Friday night at the Gypsy Tea Room. We're talking choice coifs: product-sealed 'dos, bangs cocked at such perfect angles it looked like someone used a protractor, precisely mussed bed-heads and a montage of multicolored unisex cuts, their top layers upswept in wavy ebbs and crests, like the colored icing atop a giant hipster cake.

Such a multitude of rockin' locks is always a sign that the in-the-know minions all got the memo and are where they are supposed to be, some well-hyped event that is the most important place in existence. And of course the cream of the über-hip crop was there for the YYYs. But this time the hype was valid: Though the rock-critic excitement level over the YYYs recently has been lowered from red to orange, there may be no band in the country right now as exciting, as relevant, as potentially redemptive as the Brooklyn trio.

Guitarist and drummer provide a startling, catchy take on updated new wave, but we all know lead singer is the element that really makes the band. O is one of the few singers whose voice translates almost literally on record. Even on a digitized CD, O's jittery, primal vocal stylings come across as jagged and visceral, lifting the YYYs out of the steaming pile of nu-wave retro caca we've all been forced to endure for some time now. O's unpredictable presence, her genuine weirdness manifested in her clothes, demeanor, voice and lyrics lend the band credibility. Why? Because it gives them a true element of rock 'n' roll.

If only Karen O had throttled someone with that hand, 
then the Yeah Yeah Yeahs show would have been 
perfect.
Brian Harkin
If only Karen O had throttled someone with that hand, then the Yeah Yeah Yeahs show would have been perfect.

At least on record.

We'll get to that in a second. First, let me tell you: Karen O and her cohorts were on. The crisp sound production highlighted the manic edges of some of the band's older songs, and Zinner's part punk/part Pixies/part PiL guitar riffs provided an immediate rock 'n' roll high, a gut-churning rush of adrenaline-laced excitement, while Chase's glammy drums provided the perfect pogo beats. But of course it was Ms. O who was the real star. Her guttural squeals laced already solid songs such as "Tick" and "Y Control" with infectious intensity as she strutted about, coyly playing with the mike cord, donning red silken hoods that clashed with her yellow and black Spandex bodysuit, dropping to the floor, grinning and spitting water.

The band was nothing if not efficient, pumping out exactly 45 minutes worth of tunes, many of them from their latest, slightly disappointing album Show Your Bones. The two-song encore rounded it all out in an hour.

And what would the encore be without a rendition of "Maps"? "Maps," the song that launched 1,000 mix tapes, is where I have a problem.

"Maps" is a beautiful song, a fitting heir to the Pixies' loud/soft legacy. Its lyrics are sweet without being sappy; the distort-o bass and hard guitar lines mix nicely with the melody. It just may be the best song, in fact, to come out of the year 2003.

It is also one of the YYYs least threatening, most accessible songs. Not really a problem in and of itself, but when I looked over at the frat boy next to me, as he pawed his girlfriend's firm breast with one hand and held up his cell phone, lighter-like, in the other, I realized something had gone terribly wrong. Not that rock 'n' roll should be exclusive, but this is a band whose roots are in decidedly outsider traditions--punk and new wave--and here was this guy who looked like he took a wrong turn on the way to the Cotton Bowl. And I realized: "Maps," in all its near-perfection, has joined the legacy of songs co-opted by frat boys and the people who make those Target commercials.

In this case, I have to single out Karen O as part of the issue. In person, onstage, the intimidation factor of the primal freakiness she exudes on the YYYs' albums is lost. She's just too dang nice. What I want is scary. What I want is a sneering Patti Smith, face caked in her own drying spittle and an evil Charlie Manson look in her eye. What I want is a woman whose mere demeanor weeds out the Sigma Alpha Whatever types, the meek of heart and the testosterone faux-hard fools. O may have resembled a crazy S&M Jazzercise instructor, but she did not frighten anyone. She charmed the hell out of us. Which has its merit, but the YYYs have the potential to yank rock away from its sterilized safety zone and kick everyone in the balls, New York Dolls style. Instead, at the Tea Room, they got all Buster Poindexter on our asses.

Don't get me wrong. The show was out-and-out stunning. And hell, even Patti Smith had "Because the Night." I know I'm nitpicking, but it's a question that needs to be asked: When is rock 'n' roll ever gonna scare us again? Maybe we should all back away from the hair product and get to work thinking about it.

 
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