Album Review: It’s Blitz!

Album Review:

It’s Blitz (2009)

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Interscope Records

The third album from any promising artist or group is more often than not the most critical and decisive release of a career. After wowing audiences with the debut and then taking things up a notch with the sophomore release, the general rule of thumb for the third outing is either follow suit or stir things up, the latter being the risky gamble that can break or make careers. Radiohead planted its seeds of musical relevance with its third release Ok Computer, Springsteen on Born to Run, PJ Harvey with To Bring You My Love and now the Yeah Yeah Yeahs with its latest release. 

It’s Blitz! (Interscope Records, 2009) may come as a bit of a shock to some fans expecting yet another record propelled by Karen O’s fiery shrieks and falsettos. When looking at The Yeah Yeah Yeahs natural progression since it’s monstrous debut, Fever to Tell, the band’s third album fits nicely in its budding catalogue.

The aforementioned shock would undoubtedly arise after listening to It’s Blitz!’s opening two tracks, “Zero” and “Heads will Roll,” which are both terribly catchy dance-pop numbers. With Nick Zinner’s distortion soaked guitar riffs replaced with synthesizers and Karen O’s signature highly sexual screeches and moans toned down to a more refined (albeit welcomed) take on conventional pop vocals, the early moments on It’s Blitz! are bizarre enough to warrant a double check that this is, in fact, the same Yeah Yeah Yeahs that once wrote I gotta’ man who makes me wanna’ kill

Whereas the opening tracks would feel right at home at the club or late night in the car when nobody can see you jamming out, a number of the following songs feel like extensions (or shall we say improvements) on the band’s surprise 2003 hit, “Maps.” 

“Skeletons,” one of the most strikingly beautiful songs Karen O has ever SUNG–lyrics tend to be The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Achilles heel. Beginning with a dreamlike synth loop, the song crescendos to a massive soundscape finale, which ceaselessly segues into “Dull Life,” the first song on the disc even remotely reminiscent to the group’s art punk past.

The record’s pinnacle exercise, “Runaway,” starts off as a hauntingly stripped down piano ballad showcasing O’s more delicate vocal range but eventually morphs into a powerful free-for-all of frantic string arrangements and thunderous drumming from Brian Chase (another venture away from the drummer’s conventional kit minimalism).

“Hysteric” very well may be the album’s “Maps,” a love song with lyrics like, Flow sweetly hang heavy / You suddenly complete me. An equally effective bonus acoustic version of the song hints at what alternate live versions of these new songs may sound like. 

It should come as no surprise that with this record the band called upon rising producer and member of TV on the Radio Dave Sitek for input. Radio’s third record, the masterful Return to Cookie Mountain, also secured the band’s status as one of the few current bands that matters. Sitek has a penchant for deconstructing all prior notions of what dance music should be.

It should also be noted that past Yeahs songs have led up to It’s Blitz! whether of not it was intentional. The closing trio on Fever to Tell–“Maps,” “Y Control” and “Modern Romance”–were fairly significant departure from the album’s prior tracks, possibly hinting at what was to come.

For The Yeah Yeah Yeahs it might have been easy for the trio to just continue the formula that lumped them with a budding minimalist post punk genre consisting primarily of The Strokes and The White Stripes. Unlike its contemporaries The Strokes, which tried to stir things up with its third (and also most pop-friendly) album First Impressions of Earth but was overly ambitious for its own good, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have broken free from what’s expected of them and are on a path to sparking listener curiosity for future records.

Short, loud alt-punk vignettes propelled Fever to Tell, while 2006’s Show Your Bones was less aggressive, opening up the floor for some more alt-experimentation. With It’s Blitz! the band has made its dance record, and done so without a hitch. Let’s just hope the band keeps evolving come record number four. 

Songwriting Illusions

Listen Carefully

Gold Coast slaveship bound for cotton fields
Sold in a market down in New Orleans
Scarred old slaver know he’s doin’ alright
Hear him whip the women just around midnight

These are the opening lyrics to a song that most of us have probably heard a hundred times; a song the majority of us can sing along with on command. How many of you though knew this harsh stanza was the opening to The Rolling Stones’ classic hit “Brown Sugar” when you initially saw it, without the aid of Keith Richards ultra cool opening guitar riff and Jagger’s identifiable raspy vocals?

Now I know that some of you knew from the get-go that these were gritty Sticky Fingers era Stones lyrics, however, I’m guessing that many were initially stumped. There are hundreds of songs out there that, like “Brown Sugar,” a song that deals with some “fun” themes such as slave trade, rape, sadomasochism, heroin use, and sexual fantasies, are often misinterpreted by its audience. It’s not that we as listeners choose to ignore the song’s true meanings but often we are so taken back by the catchy music (“yeah, yeah, yeah, woo!”) and the pop friendly choruses that we often pass over the deeper lyrical messages.

Brown sugar, how come you taste so good,
Brown sugar, just like a young girl should

There are many reasons for why certain songs seem to elude the majority of listeners. There’s the passive vs. active listener argument; the former being those casual listeners who enjoy songs for the music and live for the power pop songs that don’t necessarily have to be about anything but simply are candy to the ear and the latter being those dedicated listeners who dissect the lyrics and seek out the fine nuances of songwriting. This column is by no means a criticism of how people listen to music nor is it a judgment of those who were stumped by the lyrics above (after all I myself have always, to an extent, been a listener who focuses on the music rather than the lyrics) instead it is a look at a handful of popular songs that, for one reason or another, are constantly misinterpreted.

Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
‘Til you spend half your life just covering up

Probably the most popular and baffling case of a song being completely misunderstood is the story behind Bruce Springsteen’s monumental rock anthem, “Born In the U.S.A,” a song that’s true meaning even stumped a former President. The title track of the Boss’ biggest selling album of the mid 80s has often been coined one of the greatest patriotic rock songs about America when in reality the track is a blatant and satirical slap in the face of America. The song tells the story of a small town everyman who is sucked into the war in Vietnam to fight for his country, loses a comrade and quite possibly his will to live, and is ultimately forgotten about upon his homecoming. The supposed American hero becomes an exile and nobody, a tale that is all too familiar now as it was back then.

I’m ten years down the road
Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go

Now while Springsteen clearly wears his ironic take of the American dream on his sleeve (just look at the album’s satirically perfect American pastime-themed cover art) “Born in the U.S.A.” still managed to elude an entire nation who, thanks to Ronald Reagan, saw it as a patriotic anthem rather than the scathing portrayal of a failing country (Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” is another classic tune that comes off as being patriotic when its everything but). The track was used as Reagan’s 1984 campaign rally song and was embraced by his supporters, many of whom only truly heard the song’s pop savvy refrain.

In reality it’s no surprise that the lyrics on “Born in the U.S.A.” were so misconstrued. The song is a perfect power pop track. Loud, overpowering drums (I’m talking thunder snare hits people). Check. Ultra catchy 80s keyboard riff. Check. A vocal performance that screams rock. Check. And above all a ‘God Bless Americaesque’ chorus, “BORN in the U.S.A,” that tricks listeners into thinking the song is about pride and a love for a country when in reality it’s a sobering manifesto for hopelessness and the downfall of the American dream.

Often due to lyric misinterpretations songs take on new meanings all together, shedding the artist’s original intention completely.

Every move you make
Every vow you break
Every smile you fake
Every claim you stake
Ill be watching you

The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” remains to this day one of the “greatest love songs” of all time when in reality the song is a fairly creepy allegory for what happens when love goes wrong. The song’s narrator is not the smooth sounding love God that so many people believe Sting to be but rather a domineering stalker (“Oh can’t you see, you belong to me”). The big brother themes and anti-romantic realities are overshadowed by the gentle crooning vocals, a subtle melodic bass line, and new-age style drumming. Yet despite this and more “Every Breath You Take” manages to finds its place on thousands of wedding playlists and romantic mix tapes around the world.

In a college a professor once talked about James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” a song that has come to epitomize the singer songwriter genre but is often completely misunderstood. Taylor’s lyrics dive deep into his inner depression, his addiction to drugs and his struggles with his rising stardom, however, due to Taylor’s dreamy vocals and lullaby guitar strumming, the song is often mistaken as something more romantic.

It could be said that part of the brilliance of good songwriting is being able to convey a message without having to spoon-feed the audience. A song like “Born In the U.S.A” doesn’t have to necessarily sound dark to express a sad realization. Besides being completely overplayed, “Every Breath You Take” is a great song because you have to get past the cliché romantic melodies to realize the song really deals with the selfish and possibly dangerous side of romance.

Truly great music should be able to play tricks on its listeners. A song like “Brown Sugar” works well because upon first listen it’s a fast-paced, fun rock song but on a second, third or fourth take the listener grasps what Jagger is really saying. Lyrical appreciation and understanding takes patience, carefully tuned ears, and a will to dig deep into a song to realize that more often than not there is more to tune than what appears.

Closing on a Good Note

Glorious List-making

Last week on National Public Radio’s highly addictive rock and roll talk show “Sound Opinions” pop writers Greg Kot (Chicago Tribune) and Jim DeRogatis (Chicago Sun Times) discussed and listed their favorite album openers of all time. The two music geeks bantered over the importance of a solid opening track and put together an impressive short list of their personal picks–a diverse collection ranging from Aretha Franklin’s “Think” to N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton.” When the hour-long broadcast reached its close I started putting together my own mental list of songs that were ignored (for those curious The Rolling Stone’s “Rocks Off,” “Debaser” by The Pixies, Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue,” U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name,” Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains the Same,” and The Smith’s “The Headmaster Ritual” came to mind). Then I began pondering over an equally important roster of tracks; album closers.

The beautiful thing about a truly great album has always been the way it opens and closes. Similar to a great film or riveting literature, the best albums are the ones with opening tracks that draw you in and breathtaking final acts that reward you for your time and keep you yearning for more. Great closing tracks should in many ways sum up the albums meaning or bring closure to overall themes, the song should resonate with the listener long after its over warranting the albums revisit, and above all the album’s climax should blow the listener away.

Bruce Springsteen has long been revered as one of rock’s masterful storytellers and Born To Run conveyed the feelings of youth angst and romanticized life on the streets of the American city with a grandiose level of detail and perfection rarely heard on records today. The Boss’ “opera out on the turnpike” comes to an end with the magnificent “Jungleland,” a lush and evocative look at gang violence. The track is one of the greatest moments in rock history because it closes the record with an epic bang and showed us that after three albums Springsteen had finally found his niche as a socially conscious, everyman’s raconteur.

I’ve also noticed that some album closers serve as a mysterious peek into another side of an artist’s gamut. Nirvana’s Nevermind closes with the somber and haunting “Something in the Way,” a song that showed that Cobain could just as easily exorcize his inner demons with grace rather than rage. On Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, fiery blues-punk singer/songwriter P J Harvey broke away from her previous styles, introducing a new softer but equally poetic side. The album’s dreamy closer “We Float” is a ballad that isn’t afraid to showcase Harvey’s beautiful vocal range, which was absent on previous records that played up the raw side of this versatile artist.

Sometimes album closers serve as a window into a band’s future, giving us a taste of what’s to come or what else the band is capable of. In my personal experience this is often the case with breakthrough debut albums.

I’ll always remember the first time I heard Weezer’s breakthrough self-titled album (Blue) when I was just beginning to truly explore the world of music. Here’s a disc that even today remains a perfect album. It opens with the bang that is “My Name is Jonas” and finishes with the slow building epic “Only In Dreams,” a song that was such a complete 180 of the album’s previous straight pop cuts that it showed not only the band’s musical range but also the possibility that its follow up album may just be a horse of a different color (sure enough 1996’s equally masterful Pinkerton showed even more diversity in sound).

It’s become a bit cliché to say that in the day of digital music “the album is dead” and frankly this statement just is not true. Sure the way we listen to music has changed but the art of a solid album is still alive and well. Like you my iPod has a slew of random playlists and my car is littered with old mix CDs, however nothing beats the feeling I get after I’ve absorbed a carefully crafty and brilliant album. It’s through these riveting records that one can truly be transported into the artists world, even if just for 70-minutes.

Other notable closing tracks:
“Release”—Pearl Jam (Ten)
“Oh Yoko!”—John Lennon (Imagine)
“Subterraneans”—David Bowie (Low)
“Hurt”—Nine Inch Nails (Downward Spiral)
“The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”—Lauryn Hill (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill)
“A Day in the Life”—The Beatles (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band)
“Moonlight Mile”—The Rolling Stones (Sticky Fingers)
“Street Spirit (Fade Out)”—Radiohead (The Bends)
“Here Comes a Regular”—The Replacements (Tim)
“Havolina”—The Pixies (Bossanova)
“In The Back Seat”—Arcade Fire (Funeral)
“Africa”—D’Angelo (Voodoo)
“This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)”—Talking Heads (Speaking In Tongues)
“I Am the Resurrection”—The Stone Roses (The Stone Roses)
“Adore”—Prince (Sign of the Times)
“Reservations”—Wilco (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)
“Reoccurring Dreams”—Hüsker Dü (Zen Arcade)
“I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)”—Stevie Wonder (Talking Book)