Despite hype, Yeah Yeah Yeahs put on so-so show

May 2, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic


One of the best things about the Chicago rock scene is that fans here generally remain dubious about music-world hype--especially when it's generated by the New York press.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the widely hailed garage/art-punk trio, arrived at a packed Metro Wednesday night surfing on a tidal wave of hyperbole, the most ballyhooed band out of Manhattan since fellow New Wave revivalists the Strokes.

Chicago fans were certainly enthusiastic, but they were also wary: If these critical darlings couldn't deliver the goods, it's likely that their 15 minutes of fame would have been over well before their 12-song set.

So how did the flavor of the moment fare? Despite the high-energy antics of lauded frontwoman Karen O and the incredible walls of sound generated by guitarist Nick Zinner, Yeah Yeah Yeahs didn't blow anybody's mind. But they did confirm that they're well worth rock fans' attention, even if they're not quite the Second Coming.

The group is touring in support of its first full album, "Fever to Tell," which follows the release of two EPs, the first a stunning debut, the second more or less filler. But the band's strengths aren't its songs (none of which stand out like singles by the Strokes or the White Stripes) but its sound (a skillfully constructed melange of angular New Wave rhythms, scorching noise guitar solos and swirling ambient textures a la England's early '90s "shoegazer bands) and its stage presence.

"Sex on a stick," New York boosters have called Oberlin College alum Karen O, but hers is a very New York sort of sex appeal: With her Chrissie Hynde bangs and Patti Smith tomboy persona, she remained rather androgynous, despite her artfully torn purple stockings, her black minidress, her suggestive straddling of the microphone stand and her continual humping of the sound monitors.

A nonstop blur of erotic motion, the singer definitely offered something to look at. But on close examination, this was a necessary distraction to mask the facts that she doesn't have a lot to say (her lyrics tend toward shrieks and guttural moans or ponderous-sounding declarations such as "There is no modern romance!") and she says it with a more or less unremarkable voice that evokes a screechier, far more limited PJ Harvey.

The real star of the band is Zinner, the art-damaged, black-clad, strangely coiffed sonic maestro who used three amplifiers and a handful of effects pedals to generate a small orchestra's worth of fascinating guitar sounds, proving himself one of the most inventive players since Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine (with whom Yeah Yeah Yeahs share a producer, Alan Moulder).

Whether the group develops into an act worthy of the praise it's received depends on its being able to write a song we can actually remember three minutes after it's performed. In the meantime, it is at least an entertaining shot of adrenaline.

Opening for Yeah Yeah Yeahs were two less ambitious (and much less hyped) garage bands.

In stark contrast to Karen O's flailing, the four members of Cincinnati's Greenhornes barely breathed onstage as they churned out a raw, bluesy brand of fuzz-drenched noise. The music was fine, but someone should have checked to see if any of those boys besides the drummer had a pulse.

Kicking off the night were Chicago's M's, who recalled a rougher, more ragged Frisbie as they added three-part harmonies and a Kinks-inspired bounce to their particular style of three-chord snarl. The group performs again on May 29 with Detroit's Fags at the Double Door, and garage-rock fans shouldn't miss it.