With a kick-kick-snare, the new YYYs record opens with the drumbeat from Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and you think: Kick-kick-snare! Mission statement! Kick-kick-snare! Grand ambitions! Kick-kick-snare! Fearless rock reinvention! Kick-kick-snare! Nose-thumbing modernism! Then those four bars are up, and so is the jig, as “Gold Lion” plods its Tegan and Sara–ish way to shoulder-shrugging inconsequentiality. And so the rest of the so-so Show Your Bones unfolds, and you know the YYYs are a merely decent band, too confused and worried about their place in the world to have much of an idea of who they are or what they’re doing.
That’s pretty normal for a second album, I guess — especially for an outfit whose real but limited recommendations were probably over-regarded the first time around. On Show Your Bones, we find them still trying to live up to the easy, confident promise of their 2001 indie EP, plus now they have to deal with the hassle of following up 2003’s Fever to Tell, which was a big, big hit despite being mostly a faux, lo-fi schizoid cacophonous mess with some transcendent moments, notably the ballad hit “Maps.” Having to live up to early promise/high expectations, following a hit and even, potentially, being overrated in the first place are problems most people and most bands wish they had, but they’re problems nonetheless, and they get to the band. And though they try hard and they play hard and there’s one really good song and the more selective-serotonin-reuptake-inhibited production doesn’t screw it all up like the fans worried it would, the final add-up is too bewildered and unoriginal to matter much.
Karen O. is, you know, one of the main assets of the YYYs — intriguing in a scared/fearless, rock-star/normal-girl kind of way. Her lyrics on Bones can be sweet and evocative, exposing her tough vulnerability in surprising, disarming slip-outs that don’t feel like they’re part of The Plan. The whole thing makes you wonder what it must be like for her, to be this sort of figure in the mostly manly world of indie-cum-major rock, and you’re on her side and you like her. But man, she’s such a drag, too! Her main vocal influence sometimes seems to be Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl in that bad Popeye movie, or maybe Alfalfa from the Little Rascals singing “You Are My Sunshine,” and that’s no good. (Is she trying to look like them, too? Weird!) Anyway, you know what I’m talking about, singing in that pseudo-bumpkin style where the r’s at the end of words are hyperpronounced, like she just got home from hillbilly or pirate lessons. It’s the kind of singing that makes you feel really, really bad deep inside your heart. You think about cutting yourself, you know, just a little. It’s a style favored by quasi-indie girl singers like O. and Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis, people who are not mountain folk but want to ruin everybody’s life by singing like that nonetheless. They shouldn’t do that anymore.
Yeah, so the songs on Show Your Bones were supposedly written as ideas recorded in parts and then stitched up on Pro Tools, and they sound that way. Not like songs so much, but like bits of songy things that were thrown together and worked over and rearranged and reheated until they were of song length and the band was satisfied that it sounded like something they had heard another band do before. The YYYs seem so at sea in terms of their identity that they have no confidence in making music that doesn’t sound familiar to them, and if they are reading this, they know what I’m talking about.
And it doesn’t really matter whom it sounds like: As long as it sounds like something they’ve heard before, then it must be music. Missing Persons, Suede, Jane’s Addiction, Verbena, the White Stripes, Pavement, the Pretenders, on and on, endless random flavors mixed together for no reason at all. Like how “Dudley” imagines the Strokes re-imagining “Mockingbird” (as in “Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird”), the melody stolen note-for-note for . . . why?
In “Phenomena,” the Yeahers check the “something like a phenomenon” line from Grand Master Flash’s “White Lines.” This same line was used as the basis of the chorus of LL Cool J’s “Phenomenon,” which wasn’t that great a song to begin with, and it’s used here for the same purpose and with the same results, only this time it’s over a Chili Peppers groove and with a one-note guitar-riff thingy that sounds like “Going the Distance” by Cake. Get it? No? It’s called “Phenomena,” with an a. Get it now?
For the most part, Show Your Bones plays like a freaked-out band on a tedious slog to make enough musicy-sounding stuff so they can get to the album’s end and finally arrive at its one truly great moment, the fantastic “Turn Into.” This doozy of a tune is a looping, loping, haunting jaunt with heartbreakingly flouncy drums, vague but effective lyrics and harmonies, and such a durable melody that it plays over and over in your head from the time the song finishes until you get up and put something else on. “Turn Into” is a really good song, and an album with just one really good song is still automatically better than most albums, so whaddaya gonna do, sue ’em?