Good Things Come in Threes: Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Thorns
Punk rockers learned early that one of the key points of a catchy primal song was repeating the same word three times.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs learned that lesson well, carrying it from their band name into songs like "No No No." Led by wildly evocative singer Karen O, the trio crashes through a dozen tracks (one hidden) on Fever to Tell (Interscope Records).
The music is derived from classic late 1970s, early '80s punk — lots of three-chord riffs and three-note lead guitar, but Karen O's swirling vocal presence drives this retro reverb fest from just OK to way cool. She's a joy to listen to, slipping from girlish squeaks to sultry grinds to street-hard rock belts, often all in the same verse.
This is pounding counterculture party music, from the twisted goth themes of "Black Tongue" ("found at the mortuary") to the drum and overdrive guitar interplay of "Rich" to manic squeals and stomp of "Tick." Fever to Tell is the kind of album that sounds better the louder you play it. ½ (out of 5)
Columbia's Legacy label has reissued the original debut album from Northern California's New Riders of the Purple Sage. While dismissed by many as a Grateful Dead spin-off band, the Sage was centered around the country-rock songs of John Dawson, with Jerry Garcia and Mickey Hart of the Dead helping at the outset to fill out his band (which led to a long stint of the Sage serving as opening act for the Dead).
Its debut album came out in 1971 and reached Billboard's Top 40 albums chart. Its easy mix of country, folk and rock fits in nicely alongside The Grateful Dead's Workingman's Dead, from the same period.
The New Riders of the Purple Sage CD reissue includes three live recordings the band made during that year, "Down in the Boondocks," "Superman" and "The Weight."
Take three great singer-songwriters, put their backs to the camera, their hands to the guitar strings and their mouths to the mike and you get a brilliant new vocal rock band.
The Thorns is all about the music, not the ego, which is why you won't see the faces of Matthew Sweet, Shawn Mullins or Pete Droge on its CD cover.
And if you missed them this week at Milwaukee's Summerfest, or last night at Chicago's Vic Theatre, you can still hear their best heart-wrenchingly pure harmonies of the summer on its debut album, the likes of which hasn't been heard since the days when Crosby, Stills and Nash and Simon and Garfunkel were young.
The free surf sounds of The Beach Boys echo in the choruses of the opener, "Runaway Feeling," as the band begs for commitment.
The next track, "I Can't Remember," is rife with the easy strumming harmonies of '70s pop radio, as the band paints a dark picture of love gone sour:
"I can't remember
the last time
you looked me in the eye
I can't remember
A way to make you cry."
And the opening, loping strides of "Think It Over" sound like Simon and Garfunkel before the chorus harmonies bring to mind CSN.
It's not all light summer crooning. "Thorns" finds the band jamming on a raucous riff that had to have stemmed from Sweet's guitar. The three go from belting out verses into falsetto, as they tell someone to "buzz off:
you keep sticking around in my side
I just wanna know when you will leave …
ain't no talking to
no getting rid of you
once you've got your foot in the door."
The Thorns came together last summer after each of the three had worked on solo projects, and were looking to do something a little different.
They teamed up with producer Brendan O'Brien, big-beat drummer Jim Keltner and other session musicians and ended up crafting a better album than any of their solo work in recent history.
While most of the tracks are equally co-written and sung by the three Thorns (though Sweet's upper register often seeps through to the front of the mix), there are a couple of tracks from other writers. "Blue," a swirling parade of intertwined vocals, wasn't written by anyone in the band. "No Blue Sky" features a soaring chorus with strings and a co-write credit from Glenn Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket.
And "Now I Know," a slow dramatic mid-album change-up, is a solo Sweet song with the band simply echoing his plaintive lead vocals.
That short, quiet harmony-moment leads into the classic late '60s sounding "Dragonfly," that again throbs with the three-part power of Crosby, Stills and Nash.
On the album's most upbeat feel-good track, "Long, Sweet Summer Night," The Thorns recapture the swooning naiveté of '70s pop radio,with a pound of bass drums and piano as they sing:
"On a long, sweet summer night
all the kisses you bring me get my temperature right
long sweet summer night
I will love you in the daytime too
if it's the only other thing that I do."
The Thorns are about the joy of harmony, and the voices of Sweet, Mullins and Droge mesh perfectly, recapturing the feel of another time, while at the same time feeling timeless. This is the year's best-crafted vocal pop album.