Jukebox Breakdown: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Rockers To Swallow”
by Chad Jewett
Saddled with the unenviable task of following up the ferocious yet slyly romantic garage-punk breakthrough that was 2003’s Fever To Tell, New York trio Yeah Yeah Yeahs opted for something more diffuse and mercurial with 2006’s Show Your Bones. Suddenly, attention was on the band’s sense of detail – Nick Zinner’s needle-point guitar and washed out synths, Brian Chase’s expansive post-bop-esque drumming, Karen O’s growing gift for melody and songcraft. The album ended up being their best, but for all its lovely impressionism and hushed, troubled poignancy, one couldn’t help but miss the feral punk of songs like “Man” and “Black Tongue.”
And then along came Is Is. Released quietly in the wake of Show Your Bones, the EP took all the flashing, angular energy and arch provocation of Fever To Tell and dressed it up in ultra-stylish, avant-garde atmosphere. In keeping with the band’s New York origins, Is Is shares the same quality of high-fashion, witching hour cool that characterized the city’s post-punk wave. Yeah Yeah Yeahs take all of that poetry and precision, and turn it into something that swings joyfully between loose-limbed bombast and careful cubism.
The EP’s best song is also its first, the shimmying, muscular “Rockers To Swallow”. Spending almost its entire first minute with Chase’s dense, cycling drumming and the churn of Zinner’s blank strums, the song feels like a minimalist photo-negative of the more lush, ornate aesthetic that defined Show Your Bones. The preceding full-length might have the skeletal title, but “Rockers To Swallow” is the real whittled masterpiece.
Karen O’s vocal is equal parts alluring and acidic, bathed in chilly warehouse echo and wreathed in Nick Zinner’s elephantine single notes. In keeping with the entire EPs punk austerity O eschews the poetics of Show Your Bones, the chorus a mostly wordless chant: “la da da da da / Woah oh!”. About halfway through Zinner’s tense, glow-in-the-dark guitar lines up with Karen O’s rapid-fire vocals (“No need for those / It’s all over your clothes / It’s all over your face / It’s all over your nose”), as perfect a moment of sharp, mega-watt symmetry as the band would achieve. “Rockers To Swallow” keeps moving from the thrumming, circular groove with which it begins to sudden bursting shards, unpredictable and thrilling. It might just be Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ finest song. It’s certainly their most giddily explosive; the sound of a band catching fire with perfect synchronicity.