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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Sad But Glamorous World

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Though he's better known as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' guitarist, Nick Zinner is also a dedicated photographer who packs a camera on every tour. The photos he's compiled in the 2005 book I Hope You Are All Happy Now and in a New York exhibition last year could rival Almost Famous for its heavily romanticized view of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. Glowing crowds gaze at the stage with adoration and anticipation. Zinner's photogenic friends pose playfully. The band parties backstage. The photos give the impression that life on the road with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs is one big love fest when, of course, it's not.

"That is the brilliance of editing," Zinner says. "I'm not really interested in showing what this band is actually like."

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' inner-band turbulence was well documented in a pair of Spin cover stories which suggested that at points Zinner, the group's musical force, and ebullient singer Karen O, the group's selling point, were barely speaking to each other. The band pulled together for their latest, third album, It's Blitz, but the sessions were reportedly fraught with tension. According to Spin, Karen O all but decreed she didn't want guitar on the record, a move that's hard not to view as a giant middle finger directed at the group's guitarist, though Zinner says his switch to synthesizers for most of It's Blitz was a willful one.

"Karen had suggested I not play guitar," he concedes, "but only for maybe a day, and we wrote 'Zero'"-It's Blitz's vibrant lead single-"that night, so it worked. I suppose it seems like a big deal when a band known for using primarily one guitar changes to incorporate a different element, but to us it's exciting, as long as the vital core is the same."

The synths mark the end of an era for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The band had long been phasing out the coarse rock 'n' roll they introduced themselves with at the height of the early-2000s garage-rock revival, and It's Blitz purges its few remaining vestiges. It's been a flattering transition. Though Karen O shined bright in her initial role as the wild, hypersexual frontwoman, she abandoned her cartoonish, beer-spitting, crotch-grabbing act before it could stale, recasting herself as a bighearted, sympathetic softie on 2006's Show Your Bones, a break-up album in spirit if not on paper. After years of channeling Chrissie Hynde's voice, she began channeling Hynde's sophistication as well.

Like its predecessor, It's Blitz is loaded with pathos, even if the overall mood is more upbeat. "Zero" launches the record with night-on-the-town enthusiasm, introducing the metronomic synthesizers that will run through most of the album. Even when the record touches on disco, it still retains the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' unmistakable hallmarks: the sentimentality, the flirtatiousness, the enthusiasm and, like Zinner's photographs, the self-aware glamour. No band nails this dynamic quite like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, which makes it that much more of a shame there's no guarantee of a follow-up record. After they tour behind It's Blitz, their future is, as ever, unwritten.

"We're not really a 'big picture' band," Zinner says. "We take things step by step, always."

Yeah Yeah Yeahs play the Rave on Sunday, May 31, at 7:30 p.m. with openers Grand Ole Party.