t's impossible not to hear the ghost of Fever to Tell on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' follow-up, Show Your Bones. With its 2003 full-length debut, the Brooklyn-based trio confidently staked out diverse territory-- from the meltdown-rock of "Pin" to the march of "Black Tongue" to the tenderly skewed balladry of "Maps"-- and played those extremes against each other, so that each became even more extreme in contrast. The result was a complex sound that was simultaneously inviting and confrontational, and it made Fever to Tell this decade's gold standard for transcending indie hype. But while it makes sense for the YYYs to play off that earlier sound here, their new album sounds like only one side of a multifaceted band.
For Bones, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs recruited producer Squeak E. Clean, who fits these songs with an array of bells and whistles-- not to mention sirens, organs, programmed beats, acoustic guitars, rattling percussion, keyboards, and various studio effects. Most of it, unfortunately, simply seems unnecessary or excessive. In fact, more often than not, these sonic geegaws detract from the band's intensity, compartmentalizing the record's explosive moments from the songs themselves.
Nick Zinner's guitar sounds smaller and less commanding here, and Karen O has toned down her presence considerably, rarely relying on the vocal tics that once seemed the equivalent of her famously ragtag glam fashion. Even when she unleashes that hellfire growl in "Fancy", it's buried so far in the mix that it's indistinguishable from the band's racket. Brian Chase's drum work remains confoundingly intricate, but seems strangely restrained nonetheless. The percussion should punish your eardrums when he pounds out the opening of "Fancy"; instead it sounds polite, like he's clearing his throat to get your attention. When the Yeah Yeah Yeahs finally do cut loose at the frenzied end of the Strokes-fest "Mysteries", the moment has a get-it-all-out-now feel.
These are growing pains for a band that has done a lot of maturing since Fever to Tell made them semistars. This newfound wisdom has its benefits, chief among them a confessional tone to the songwriting that effectively blurs the distinctions between Karen O and Karen Orzalek. Show Your Bones is a post-fame album, with many songs written from the specific perspective of a touring musician. "Warrior" begins as an acoustic ballad much like the previous album's "Modern Romance", but builds linearly to an intense finish as Karen O laments, "Travel away, travel it all away/ The road's gonna end on me." She never lapses into self-pity, though, mainly because the attraction of an excited audience proves as strong as the pull of a stable, homebound life. First single "Gold Lion" sounds like a mission statement: "We'll build a fire in your eyes."
For its faults, howeveer, Show Your Bones contains some genuinely disarming moments that reveal the band's considerable emotional and sonic force. Despite its similarity to Love and Rockets' "No New Tale to Tell", "Gold Lion" unleashes a booming wordless chorus and a high-flying guitar riff from Zinner. On "Way Out"-- perhaps the album's most effectively dramatic track-- O infuses her vocals with a palpable emotional fatigue, sounding desperate to reconnect with the world even as she slowly sinks into numbness: "It's around me so tight!"
Still, on Show Your Bones the Yeah Yeah Yeahs occupy only one corner of the territory they claimed on Fever, walking confidently in their own footsteps but without claiming any new ground. If Fever had a skuzzy film of sweat and alcohol that sounded persuasively real, with songs that could have been cobbled together from scraps found in garbage bins and dumpsters, unmade beds and mess-strewn rooms, Bones possesses a too-clean sound and a songwriterly approach that seems more redolent of the studio than the stage. These refinements, which prove merely cosmetic, sap their sound of its brutal spontaneity and mute the band members' idiosyncrasies, and as a result, the album sounds guarded, with very little danger and too few moments of real urgency.