Larger-than-life vamp Karen O recently turned 30 and has moved beyond her younger, thrills-and-frills persona best known for spitting warm beer on crowds and deep-throating microphones. And, in what O calls "the autumn of [their] career," the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have also matured and branched out from their old roaring sound that made so much sense in dark basement clubs packed with 20-somethings.
It's Blitz!, the third full-length LP by the art-punk iconoclasts, is quite the departure from the raucous, whiskey-laced freak-outs that put them on the map. Mostly gone is that raw, grimy axe-driven blare, replaced by a more polished package of synth-heavy dance rock and swooning ballads. If the earlier YYYs records are the equivalent of a patchy, rabid dog biting after the postman, It's Blitz! is the muzzle placed over its fangs. The taming is for the best, yet something is lost without the spectacle of the mailman dashing for his life.
Nevertheless, It's Blitz! is still an endearing effort. The album kick-starts with "Zero," a kinky little track that celebrates those on the fringe. An insistent taser zaps around O's vocals, demanding attention and giving the song a sense of urgency. "Heads Will Roll," another highly addictive dance number, picks up where "Zero" leaves off. The song's catchy new-wave feel paints the picture of a dancehall bloodbath. "Off with your head/Dance 'til you're dead," Karen O commands.
A more hushed couple follows these two high-energy tracks. "Soft Shock" is a dreamy song filled with O's sincere coo and some pseudo beat-boxing. And "Skeletons," a vulnerable lament with a pretty hook ("Love, don't cry/Skeleton me"), investigates what lies beneath the surface, past the cloak of skin and flesh to skeletal revelation. Drumsticks clatter like bones in the background to create a haunting, lovely sound that reminds listeners of the mortality of their relationships and of themselves. Both songs are the closest the YYYs have come to recreating the grandeur of their monster hit "Maps."
Other notables are "Dull Life," the audio result of Karen O crashing a honky-tonk; "Shame and Fortune," an edgy song with a sinister metal sound; and "Dragon Queen," a groovy jam with a sexy refrain ("My mouth is touching your mouth") and funk courtesy of TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe.
The rest of the tracks, mostly ballads, seem emaciated compared to their full-bodied cousins. Such a prevalence of slower songs is unusual for a band so good at going sonically insane. Karen O explains the tonal shift: "What I like least about electronic music is that there's often an emotional detachment, so it was really important for me to avoid that." Can't blame a girl for trying, but, out of the five mid-to-low tempo tracks, only "Skeletons" and "Soft Shock" truly succeed. Even so, the combination of this one-two punch and the album's thundering dance tracks is a force mighty enough to compensate.
It's Blitz! doesn't throttle necks like the band's debut, Fever to Tell, but it doesn't intend to. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have already conquered that territory and now they're on the move to capture new ground. There's something to be said for a band that leaves a sound that works (something most musicians never achieve) for the unknown. They haven't quite found their way to the noise they're hunting, but they're dangerously close. And, besides, the journey is half the fun.