Once upon a time, there was this superhyped artist from New York Citysexy, mouthy, a little controversial; definitely glad to be riding outside the mainstream. The media couldn't get enough, and discerning members of the music-buying public snapped up the record like it was discount diamonds. More cynical types, though, predicted a post-debut downfallafter all, they'd seen this kind of hype before, and it never lasted. Perhaps you know the name? Nicolas Zinner does: "Terence Trent D'Arby? Yeah, he's back! He moved to Germany and changed his name to something Islamic, but he's returning now as TTD, on a new label. I'm so excited." Zinner, the guitarist and co-songwriter of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, tried recently to cover the '80s two-hit wunderkind's classic track, "Wishing Well," but he freely admits, "It was awful."
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Icarus Line, the Thermals Showbox, 206-628-3151 $10adv./$12 6 p.m. Fri., April 25, all ages
Zinner, of course, is a Manhattanite who knows a little something about hype and a lot about the backlash that comes with instant stardombut we won't belabor the D'Arby comparisons any further, other than to say that both have made very good use of a trademark hairdo. For Zinner, it all kicked into high gear with the mid-2002 release of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' self-titled five-song EP. Snarly, propulsive tracks like "Bang" and "Art Star" pounded out a fresh aesthetic for scenesters so over the Strokes and growing weary of electroclash, as the EP-closing "Crimson and Clover"-esque anthem, "Our Time," presciently summed it up: "This is our time sweet baby, to break on through/It's the year to be hated, so glad that we made it."
Thanks to singer Karen O's spit-and- lipstick supernova stage presence, Zinner's fiercely melodic guitar lines, and drummer Brian Chase's hard, steady hand, the band swiftly became the new chipped-tiara sweethearts of an already burgeoning N.Y.C. scene. But two EPs (a mini three-tracker, Machine, followed in November) do not a career makethat will be up to the Yeah's debut full-length, Fever to Tell, due next week.
LUCKY FOR THE band (and Interscope Records, who wooed them away from indie Touch & Go), Fever's big mouth writes a check its butt can cash, and then some. A new-wave/punk rock mash-up with a minor metal crush, the album hinges on Karen O's trademark hard-R caterwauling, which often forsakes dictionary phonetics for sexed-up primal screams, yelps, and howls. While O is still the hot-lava core of the band, she couldn't do it without the driving, tightly wound fuzz of Zinner and Chasebassless but augmented here for the first time with synths. Zinner, for one, is proud of what they have: "I worked on that shit for so long, so it's great that it finally meets my ridiculous standards that I imposed on it," he laughs. And it didn't come easy. Those standardsnot the scenarios of band in-fighting, severe writer's block, and/or nasty crack habits that an overactive rumor mill churned outmeant skipping a scheduled U.K. summer tour that would have included mass-exposure dates at the Reading and Leeds festivals.
"We had all the material, because those were songs we had been writing and playing for the last year or so," he explains, "but the whole canceling thing was more a matter of not being able to focus, and it was mostly about giving Karen the time needed for her to put good vocals down she's not a studio musician."
She is, however, a woman ready to expose more than the left breast she accidentally treated Seattle audiences to last year; Fever tracks like "Maps" and "Modern Romance" drop the amped-up shriek and swagger for unexpectedly vulnerable meditations on love and loss. O's voice cracks and trembles as she begs over and over, "Wait, they don't love you like I love you," on the gorgeous "Maps," and laments, "Well I was wrong, it never lasts," over jangling tambourine on album closer "Romance," making her sound like the loneliest, most heartbroken girl in all of Brooklyn. Except she's no longer in Brooklyn, and no longer alone; O recently moved to New Jersey to be with her boyfriend, Angus Andrews, singer for black-hearted art-punksters and the YYY's former tourmates, the Liars. In the meantime, though, she hasn't lost the lovelorn fanboys, the ones Zinner calls "those shy, sort of sweaty, nervous teenage boys who lurk in the parking lot," and it's a phenomenon likely to only increase with the release of Fever.
EITHER WAY, THE band is officially ready for their close-up: Though they acknowledge that the switch to a major label, a decision Zinner describes as "a really, really long, dramatic, emotional process," almost guarantees some level of backlash, the band decided to roll with the inevitable punches, and have even made their first video, for "Date With the Night." "We had our friend Patrick just film everything on a two-week U.K. tour that we did last month, and edit it downand it's great, it's really beautiful. Although," Zinner adds with a laugh, "I got a really funny e-mail forwarded from MTV about edits that they wanted to do. A list of shots like, 'Karen gives middle finger to crowdblur finger. Karen shakes tongue between two fingersblur. Writing on wall "Wanker"blur!' You can still see the uncensored version on MuchMusic thoughCanadians don't care."
In the meantime, the Yeahs are gearing up for their first U.S. headlining tour, a thought that alternately thrills and scares Zinner: "It feels sort of weird being in the position of the last band to playI always expect half the crowd to walk out," he admits. "But I can't wait till people actually have the new record. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of people standing there with their arms crossed until we play [first EP fave] 'Bang'then there's like this Jekyll and Hyde transformation." No doubt a scenario that Terence Trentsorry, TTDwould understand.