by BEN BROCK WILKES
In 2001, Yeah Yeah Yeahs released a 13-minute self-titled EP with a punk song on it called “Art Star.” In between choruses of guttural howls and cutesy doo doo doo’s, a 22-year-old Karen Orzolek talk-sang in a voice that is now as recognizable as her outfits, “I’ve been working on a piece that speaks of sex and desperation…I got a dealer in Tokyo, I got a rep in Paris, I got an agent in Rome; Shit, I got a gallery in New York!” Though at the time this was in all likelihood a facetious mockery of her peers at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Yeah Yeah Yeahs now have business connections across the globe and it’d be hard to find two nouns to better describe Orzolek’s singing voice. Hell, she’s been asked to be the cover model for Playboy—not that she took it. The band has released three critically, and publically, acclaimed albums in the past decade and have recorded songs like “Maps,” that most sentient fans of 21st century rock would at the very least recognize at its opening guitar tremolo. Despite what adds up to be enormous pressure to ‘sell-out,’ for lack of a better word, Yeah Yeah Yeahs have chosen to maintain the freedom of expression that they owe themselves. Mosquito, the band’s fourth full-length is no exception. The last track on the turn-of-the-century EP is a delightfully messy garage interpolation of “Crimson and Clover,” which features Karen crooning, “It’s the year to be hated.” For the trio that remains in tact twelve years later, 2013 is the year to be loved.
If you’re reading this review, odds are you’ve heard Mosquito’s first single and opening track, “Sacrilege.” With the inclusion of a full gospel choir, YYYs obviously haven’t grown to fear experimentation. The patient, funk crescendo of a song abandons none of the dance foundation or gritty vocals that we have come to expect from the band, yet incorporates a moody voodoo and an R&B tone that is new for them and a fitting introduction to the record. In an interview with Noisey, Karen O described Mosquito as, “a Yeah Yeah Yeahs soul record.” Needless to say, YYYs are not a rock band anymore. Without losing the raw power of Fever to Tell, the band has smelted the darkness of Show Your Bones, the atmospheric pop of It’s Blitz!, and a myriad of influences from dub reggae to minimalist psychedelic to alchemize an album that transcends easy gentrification.
YYYs playful and open-minded approach to making music enables Mosquito’s lovely eccentricity, but what birthed it was the band’s treatment of their producers as equal members in the songwriting process. The rich sonic textures and unique percussive feels that make this music fresh and innovative are heavily owed to the role of Dave Sitek (of TV on the Radio and the band’s long-time producer). This collaboration takes the It’s Blitz!-style danceablity of songs like “Zero” and “Heads Will Roll” to enchanted extraterrestrial lands. Take, for example, the dub jungle of “Slave” or the exotic groove of “These Paths,” that drummer Brian Chase described as, “…Dave communing with the desert; it sounds like pecans bouncing off cacti.” Karen noted medical marijuana and the recording environment of the west Texas desert as additional factors in the sound of that track. The quality of production on Mosquito and the layers of atmosphere that provide one of its defining characteristics speak to a contemporary intersection of rock and electronic music that YYYs are helping to pioneer in a way that while not as extreme as bands like Sleigh Bells or as weird and arty as The Soft Moon or Black Moth Super Rainbow, is arguably more lasting.
Most striking for any fan of Fever To Tell or Show Your Bones, Nick Zinner’s sharp guitar riffs play a supporting role instead of the lead on this album, introducing a style that is driven by rhythm and sonic environment. The ambient found sounds of New York’s MTA steer “Subway,” while “Under The Earth’s” roots shuffle chugs through layers of dubby echoes, showcasing a catchy Eastern melody articulated not by a 6-string, but by choral vocals and orchestral strings. “Always” is drenched in dreamy synths that are lead like a dancing partner with crisp clave salsa beat. Toying with a world of dance genres has lead to heavy use of bass; take the sweet piano ballad of “Wedding Song,” whose guitar hook is quite reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen’s “Secret Garden,” but is grounded surprisingly by a pulsing bass tone. “Slave” flaunts a more obvious reggae walk that ushers in the brilliantly distorted whine of Zinner’s guitar. YYYs experimentation bites off more than it can chew very rarely. Despite the buzz surrounding a track produced by James Murphy and a cameo by Kool Keith, aka Dr. Octagon, “Buried Alive’s” rap verse that frankly feels out of place.
Karen O’s vocals fit seamlessly into Mosquito’s strengths. With the album’s focus on production, O is able to explore new textures and effects to push the limits of her voice. The end of “These Paths” features a melodic ping-pong game the word ‘paths’ to match the off-kilter beat in the background. She recorded a gravely, super low vocal track below her unaffected voice for the intro of “Slave” as she sings, “It eats your soul, like tears you fall, my slave, you steal, you heed the call, my slave, the keys are gone, my slave, you keep me beating on.” The mystic darkness of these lyrics is a staple of the record. It is safe to say Karen has assumed the role of a demon on Mosquito, whether she is practicing sacrilege by “falling for a guy who fell down from the sky” or using her “12 tongues [to] put a hex on you” on “Under The Earth.” Karen uses this satanic tone to flirt with the sexy nature of her vocals in a fantastic way. The best example of this is the sinister title track, “Mosquito,” which is a showcase for Karen. Her mosquito buzzes are spot on and her repetitions of “suck your, suck your, suck your blood” make the listener hungry. The song has a lovely bridge/ build with haunting, tension-filed guitar during which Karen slips through gritted teeth, “they can see you but you can’t see them, so are you gonna let them in, hiding beneath your bed, crawling between your legs, sticking it in your veins, were you itching when they called your name?” The influence of girl-group punk is tangible here, owing something to their Mexican cohorts Le Butcherettes. As always, she gets pretty freaky. On the goofy, “Area 52,” what Nick called “the ultimate B-side” and the only traditional rock song on the album, Karen begs, “take me as your passenger, take me as your prisoner, I wanna be an alien, take me.” Despite sex and desperation, her soft side shows at the close of the album, “Wedding Song” flatters with, “you’re the breath that I breath.” Karen is more savvy and controlled with her vocal style than ever before, bouncing between soft and sass in the intro of “Sacrilege” and sweetly lulling her audience on “Subway.”
Yeah Yeah Yeahs have pushed themselves to new heights on Mosquito. They have crafted a sound that is new for them and unique in its context, but that falls neatly into what we have come to expect from a trio whose power and creativity runs consistently unchecked. [A-]
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