Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Yeah Yeah Yeahs face stark reality of shifting identies on Mosquito

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are mellowing with age, but they aren't in a hurry to let you know. From an initial glance, the New York electro-pop rockers fourth album Mosquito seems to be as riled up and tripped out as anything in their back catalog.

It features attacks from aliens and killer mosquitoes; it is an album of gospel choirs and Dr. Octagon. And like always, frontwoman Karen O still has a knack for getting deliriously twisted from time to time. But a few spins through Mosquito will reveal that there's an entirely different type of undercurrent being channeled here. It's not just simply softening their sound; there's a definite focus on ambiance and atmospherics, and it's starting to become the rule more than the exception.

With the riot grrrl rage that marked Fever to Tell, this seemed like a band that would never grow old. But consider that their debut is over a decade behind them, and that and Karen O is a little more than five years away from her 40th birthday. It's not surprising that Mosquito is by far their least aggressive record to date, and sees the band struggling to adapt now that their initial gameplan has run its course. It certainly rasies the question whether aggro/indie/garage rockers such at the YYY's are really meant for longevity, and if they aren't perhaps past their prime.

Chill out and downtempo tracks form the album's backbone, and they do it in several different ways. There is an emphasis on establishing a singular ambient sound effect and expanding outward from there, whether it be the soft click clack of the train track on "Subway," or the majestic caw of seagulls on album closer "Wedding Song." It provides a constant soothing presence the listener can come back to, but it becomes much more than that.

Elsewhere, the band explores other nuances. "Slave" resembles a Muse song with a spaced out electronic vibe and some entrancing guitar work, which leads into some twinkling at the end along with Karen's urgent shouts. The mellow trend continues through several other tracks; "Always" is bolstered by some soothing electronic washes, "These Paths" is picked up slightly by Karen's climactic falsetto at the end, while "Despair" tends to follow the theme established on the rest of the album by being dreamlike and exceedingly forgettable. "Under the Earth," meanwhile, fails in an altogether different fashion. It was intended to sound like a roots reggae song, but its oriental keyboard riffs causes it to sound much more like something from the Far East than the coast of Jamaica.

There are a few songs that set a much trippier and wacked out vibe. "Area 52" grabs your attention iwth its kicking drums and distinctive guitar riff, while Karen tells the insane story of a wigged out alien invasion.  Elsewhere, the crew demonstrate their ability to conjure a spaced out hip hop vibe for special guest Kool Keith, who does a first rate job at creating a chill atmosphere. Last but not least, the title track sees Karen making herself as engaging as possible with a barrage of vocal pyrotechnics.

Out of the slower tracks, "Subway" and "Wedding Song" stand out thanks to the serene chill out mood they create, with "Wedding Song" being the best slow jam in the set. With its reverent, serene guitar work, it comes across like the band's take on The XX, while also summoning the spirit of Beach House with its background ambiance.

Unfortunately, the few standouts that pepper the disc aren't enough to save it from mediocrity. Although they can conjure up a variety of interesting soundscapes and techniques, the fact remains that the songwriting itself is lacking depth and repetitive. To their credit, they manage to distract the listener from this somewhat by conjuring an array of mildly interesting sounds and techniques, but a glance at the lyric sheet shows just how basic the song structures are and how often passages tend to repeat themselves."Under the Earth"  has a repetitive lead in bolstered by a repetitive chorus and repetitive refrain, while other songs like "Mosquito" and "Sacrilege" feel a bit bare bones in terms of structure.

At the very least, the band has succeeded at creating a nice varied texture of moods and sounds, but at the end of the day it's not enough to compensate for the aimless drifting present in the majority of these tracks. Mosquito comes across as an album in need of a serious kick in the pants, delivered by a band slipping out of their comfort zone.

Score: 73/100

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