Poor Yeah Yeah Yeahs. When the trio released last year’s Show Your Bones — the follow-up to the scorching Fever to Tell debut (2003) — that title sounded like a defeated admission. Rather than another edition of incendiary rock, Show Your Bones was a harmless offering that whittled all the mock danger down to skeletal remains. And although you can’t fault a band for straying from the formula, you also can’t fault fans for wondering if this new defanged and de-clawed version of the band was there all along, hiding behind a curtain of in-the-red volume. It was a gravely disappointing album for a band that staked its (repetitively affirmative) name on the raw energy of its proselytizing live shows. There was scant evidence of skinny Nick Zinner’s man-sized daisy-chained amp attack or, you know, the manic release of Karen O flailing and strangling herself with a microphone cord. Yes, the band’s stage presence was a stylized and overblown caricature of rockist cool, but, in an age of inevitable imitation and pantomime, it was also the most convincing act around.
In a seeming response to the subdued mood of Show Your Bones (not to mention waning critical interest), the members of Yeah Yeah Yeahs have issued the Is Is EP, an overt stab at resurrecting the formula that helped make Williamsburg the center of the universe for a split second. Collecting tracks written shortly after the release of Fever to Tell, these five songs were live staples during the subsequent tours. And the recording preserves this with a nearly undernourished production that emphasizes their elemental composition. It documents the intimidating enormity of the band’s sound. This is, after all, the product of two musicians and a vocalist: the power trio minus one. But, on record, these songs are so direct that they lack the depth and texture that more sonic detail would deliver. Factor in the seismic shift in the indie-rock milieu and suddenly the chugging guitar of “Kiss Kiss” and by-the-books loud-soft dynamics of “Down Boy” sound infinitely more pedestrian than if the EP had been rush-released when the songs were actually written. Without question, Is Is would have been a drool-inducing addendum to Fever to Tell. It reminds how paralyzingly potent Yeah Yeah Yeahs was, but the time lapse has redefined the impact. (Consider: Do scientists weep with nostalgia at the site of an archaeological dig?) Even though all five songs are great, the EP’s status as a contextualizing footnote to a great album tames the experience of listening to it now.