Is Is (EP)
Fiction / Dress Up, 2007
REVIEW BY: Melanie Love
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/29/2011
I remember being deeply entrenched in my classic rock phase when I was in high school, and for some reason, every artist I listened to was male. Whether it was brazen rock from Zep or tender balladry from Elton John, there seemed no need for females, who I'd never realized could rock as hard or emote as softly as their male counterparts. Plus, I had the gender-blurring of Freddie Mercury to tide me over!
But of course, as it turns out, female badassery in rock n' roll has been alive and well forever, and today's indie and alternative grrls are holding the torch brightly, with few doing it better than Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. She's an enigma and an artist, a performer whose voice can tug insistently at the heartstrings (see the ubiquitous "Maps" or "Skeletons" off of 2009's It's Blitz) or move towards guttural growls that are just as essentially human as her love songs.
This EP comes between their debut album, 2003's Fever To Tell and their 2006 follow-up Show Me Your Bones, and it culls together songs recorded during a period during 2004. It's rare for an EP to accomplish as much as a full length album in its short runtime; usually, they're more of a teaser into a band rather than mini-opuses. But with Karen O. at the helm and Nick Zinner (guitars) and Brian Chase (drums) providing faithful, vigorous instrumentation, this little disc has a life of its own: a raw, visceral, blood-pumping life.
The songs here are less "songs," per se, than explorations of sound, explosions of furious energy and riffing that's somehow both tight and swerving. Opener "Rockers To Swallow" makes up for its lack of lyrics with furiously pounded martial rhythms of drums and throbs of guitar that zig-zag around O.'s half-screamed, commanding lyrics. Like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or not, but it's impossible to deny the presence of this group, who manage to turn scraps of lyrics and spacious, breathy songs into prowling beasts of energy. And who then flip around with the next cut "Down Boy," which is as dreamy and melodic as these rockers will get here (though O. leads into the choruses with unrestrained yowls).
This trio of musicians so clearly feeds off each other, and they must be such a treat to see live. But what's great about Is Is is that it captures the sheer force of their vitality and melds it to disc. It's also an accessible step through the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' work, and you can definitely see where the material on It's Blitz! eventually grew out of. Karen O. is as seductive as she is intimidating - listen to "Kiss, Kiss" for proof of this with its incredible fade-out: "We're three, we're three, we're three!" she shouts as Zinner's psychedelic squalling cuts off, but then, softly ominous, she repeats, "We're three in the dark tonight."
But for all the virtuosity of their instrumentation, these three do lyricism pretty damn well, too. It's an odd approach, full of phrases and scraps that twine together to form mood, but this technique echoes their songs in a way, too, in that the spaces in between the words and the music are just as important as what's being said. The EP's title track features little more than the repeated line "All my loves are in pieces / All my loves are within a wild night," but each time you get a radically different sense of time and place and feeling depending on whether O. is yelling her throat raw or letting Zinner's riffs seduce her.
I've never really listened to this EP before sitting down to write this review, and yet, somehow it struck me. It's Blitz! and Fever To Tell are some of my go-to albums, but Is Is remains a veritable gem in the Yeah Yeah Yeah's catalogue. Karen O. and her boys leave you simultaneously satisfied yet wanting more, more, more.