This is an underground-purist alert: “Gold Lion,” the opening track on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ second album, Show Your Bones, is named after an advertising award. Last year, an Adidas television spot featuring the original composition “Hello Tomorrow,” written by Show Your Bones co-producer Sam Spiegel, a.k.a. Squeak E. Clean, with vocals by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O, took the Gold Prize for Best Use of Music at the Cannes Lions Advertising Festival in France.
“Gold Lion” itself is not about selling out or buying in. The song — a strident, initially acoustic march that suggests Beck conducting the Beta Band, until guitarist Nick Zinner stomps on his distortion pedal and drummer Brian Chase frees his inner Dave Grohl — is mostly about getting close. “Tell me what you saw,” Karen O sings with sizzling impatience, “I’ll tell you what to . . .” — at which point her voice becomes a hot, spiked yelp, the obvious sound of a trip to the moon and back. But the song’s title is a sly admission of ambition and self-possession, a declaration of how far this New York neogarage trio intends to go in this game. Zinner, Chase and Karen O left indie-rock piety behind when they signed to Interscope. But Show Your Bones is their true show of brass.
This album is, above all, a textural triumph, a quantum bounce from the brittle jitter and insect-chatter fuzz of the band’s 2001 Yeah Yeah Yeahs EP and 2003’s full-length Fever to Tell. It’s as if the Velvet Underground had gone from the black-crusted minimalism of their first album right to the pop bloom of their fourth, Loaded. “Fancy” starts with guest keyboards by Money Mark, doing his impression of Ray Manzarek on the Doors’ Strange Days, while Chase invokes the thunder-tabla math of Led Zeppelin’s “Four Sticks.” In “Way Out,” Zinner — whose guitar architecture is outstanding throughout the album — shoves and charges with stacked power chords and basement bass lines, compounding Karen O’s frustration: “The face ain’t making what the mouth needs.” When the song’s bridge blows up like Bug-time Dinosaur Jr, Karen O’s distrust and anxiety erupt with it. “When you mean it on the inside,” she signs off at the end, “you still can’t get to me.” Rough translation: Giving is a bitch in a world where everybody wants, all the time.
Lyrically, Karen O makes sense mostly in spurts. On paper, her run-on flood of disjointed metaphors and interrupted thoughts makes Bones‘ eleven songs read like BlackBerry mail from William Burroughs. Consider this mouthful from “Honey Bear”: “What, what did you do to your back/Kept soft thoughts cut lips carry pin back/Junk jump off too much talk/Old hope breeds/Cold needs/Undress cold keys.” But where there is clarity, Karen O slices through with dagger-blade warning (“She’ll make you sweat in the water” — “Phenomena”) and authority (“What’s in the trash bag/Just another part of you” — “Fancy”). My favorite lines are actually the first two in “Honey Bear”: “Turn yourself around/You weren’t invited,” a sharp slap in the face in which Zinner doubles Karen O’s saucy squeal on guitar before the whole thing swerves into a metallic goose step. I would have opened Bones with “Honey Bear,” just for the mixed message: Here’s our album. Now fuck off.
The one thing missing from Show Your Bones is the electrifying sight of Karen O’s singing: the Tina Turner body language and steely Chrissie Hynde command that come with her Siouxsie Sioux-like whoop onstage. You have to pay at the box office for that. But in the last two songs here, she brings an urgency that deserves its own golden lion. “Warrior” begins with what seems like Karen O gasping for air, singing in exhausted tiptoe step with Zinner’s acoustic-blues picking. Then the song shoots into guitar-choir time, and she accelerates likewise — “Trouble at home, travel away” — as if she’s jumping from bad news into the unknown with deep, fearless breaths. The confidence is even bigger in “Turn Into” — the next word in the lyric being “hope.” “I know what I know,” Karen O sings repeatedly over Zinner’s flamencolike strum and Chase’s hardy gallop. (Extra-nice touch: the electro-squiggles that sound like they fell in from Del Shannon’s “Runaway.”) There is no mistaking the sexuality in her announcement and the pride that comes with it. But the momentum in the music is purely the joy of moving forward, and in control. That’s the real lesson here, from “Gold Lion” on. It’s not enough to show your bones. Shake ’em around, make ’em go somewhere, anywhere. Otherwise, they just go to waste.