Who killed the electric guitar?
If you’ve read anything about the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s latest release, It’s Blitz!, you probably learned that the answer to that question is Karen O. As the band’s singer, she made the executive decision that they needed to change out their engine and take on a new direction. To do this, she suggested that Nick Zinner, whose sharp-edged guitars carved out the band’s sound on their first two albums, play synthesizers instead. It was like saying to a tap dancer, “Hey, could you go out on stage and do what you do, only this time without shoes?”
The reviews will give you the impression that this album is a complete overturn, loaded with synth-crazed dance pop from beginning to end. And if you listen to only the first two tracks, you might agree. But when I got to track 5, I found myself dancing and digging it, and realized it was because the guitars were back. Nick was apparently allowed to pick his axe back up and dig out a couple rock songs. By the end of the cd, by some sleight of hand, they manage to transcend any lines drawn around their style and float off into glittery starlight. The song “Hysteric” sparkles with electricity, and “Little Shadow” closes the disk with gentle, heartening shafts of light.
As much as I consider this album a success, and a welcome expansion of what the Yeah Yeah Yeahs can do, I hope it’s not a signal of departure from what makes up their heart and bones. Nick Zinner is one of the few guitarists out there who can make a clawing, biting riff sound like an epiphany. He’s one of the few guitarists who still uses his teeth, and I’d hate to see the trio not utilize that. I understand that their last album and tour brought with it a lot of turmoil between band members and that this represents brighter times, but let’s hope they still hold on to some of the dark. The music industry, which has plenty of talented indie artists making semi-rock songs right now, needs a few acts who can still shred the walls.
I was disappointed when I found out that the Secret Machines’ guitarist Benjamin Curtis left the band to form School of Seven Bells with the girls from On! Air! Library! School of Seven Bells has released a well-crafted, futuristic album with layers of soft vocals and electronics, and it’s good, but I can’t help but miss watching Benjamin on stage with an arc of pedals in front of him, sculpting sonic thunderstorms over the Secret Machines’ stadium-sized thump. Thankfully my beloved Deftones are still keeping the thorns and razors in their music, even as they evolve into spacey and incomparable new ground, but I struggle to name many others who have maintained their bite.
Remember when Billy Corgan decided he needed to prove to everyone his versatility by recording Adore, the Smashing Pumpkins’ left turn into mediocre electronica? I supported his effort to retain his integrity by doing something risky, but that was in 1998, and he hasn’t done anything remotely noteworthy since. He put out a ton of great material in the mid 90s, then swerved toward obscurity and never returned. I have faith in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and their instincts, but I admit that a part of me worries, just a little, that their best albums may now be behind them. Maybe, if I’m lucky, they’ll read that last line and get pissed off, then go write another rafter-shaking rock attack.