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Yeah, a sonic blitz

March 31, 2009|Mikael Wood; Jeff Weiss; Chris Barton

Yeah Yeah Yeahs

"It's Blitz!"

(DGC/Interscope)

* * * 1/2

"Sometimes I think I'm bigger than the sound," sang Karen O on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' last album, 2006's "Show Your Bones." Well, now we know she is: On "It's Blitz!," O leads her bandmates in a daring reinvention of the group's music, venturing way beyond the strictures of New York revival rock into something artier, prettier and far more profound.

The first change you notice here is the absence of Nick Zinner's buzz-saw guitar, which did as much to establish the YYY sound as did O's Budweiser-banshee wail. The singer convinced Zinner to trade his beloved six-string for a synthesizer, and that gives these songs a new future-pop sheen (honed in part by Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio, who co-produced): "Skeletons" glides atop a bed of percolating Morse-code keyboard blips, and the insistent electro-funk throb in "Soft Shock" recalls classic New Order.

Even when Zinner goes back to the guitar, his playing shares little with the bare-bones garage-punk attack of yore. In "Dull Life," for example, he mirrors O's vocal melody with computer-like precision, rather than spraying noise in every available direction as he used to do.

Throughout the album, drummer Brian Chase drives the music with heightened purpose, providing a sense of destination the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have never seemed especially interested in. They come deliciously close to sounding like a straight-up disco band in "Dragon Queen," which could be Chic as fronted by Debbie Harry.

Yet "It's Blitz!" isn't just about streamlining and sophistication. These songs contain O's most expressive singing yet, and the tension between her vocal performances and the band's playing results in music richer in emotion than anything the trio has done since "Maps," its breakout hit from 2003. In such cuts as "Runaway" and "Hysteric" -- where O sings, "You suddenly complete me," over a gorgeous wash of neo-shoegaze sonics -- you're not even sure what feeling the song is producing. Hopeful anxiety? Forlorn excitement? Triumphant melancholy?

The only way to decide is to keep listening.

-- Mikael Wood

--

The incredible shrinking rapper

Flo Rida

"R.O.O.T.S."

Atlantic/Poe Boy

* * *

From LL Cool J to Jay-Z and Lil Wayne, hip-hop always has prized larger-than-life icons whose alchemy of skills, style and swagger enabled them to scale the Billboard charts. But with rap finally submerged in the waters of the mainstream, it's only inevitable that it would emulate the superstar-as-cipher model pioneered by its pop kin.

"Right Round," Flo Rida's record-shattering, double-platinum first single from "R.O.O.T.S.," boasts production credits from Dr. Luke, the mastermind behind such smashes as Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone" and Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl." Interpolating Dead or Alive's "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)," the song recasts rap as Hot Topic teen pop. It's a smart move. Gone are the illusions of hip-hop credibility that dogged "Mail on Sunday." In its stead, Flo Rida's Atlantic patrons have supplied him with billion-dollar beats, gluttonous hooks and a blinding chrome tint.

With an almost eerie facelessness, the Miami rapper inhabits the songs like Armani suits bought off the rack. He's enlisting a who's who of contemporary hit makers: will.i.am. and Akon ("Available"), Timbaland ("Touch Me"), Wyclef Jean ("Rewind"), Ne-Yo ("Be on You") and Nelly Furtado ("Jump"). Flo Rida boasts an adroit double-timed flow, but his greatest achievement is his understanding of how to stay in the background, never overwhelming the electro-laced tracks.

Even the title song, a narrative of Flo Rida's gritty rise, is swathed in mammoth R&B hooks, baying ad-libs, dollar-sign synthesizers. There's an almost geometric symmetry to "R.O.O.T.S.' " pop precision, one that lends it a ruthless efficacy and anoints Flo Rida the first anonymous rap superstar.

-- Jeff Weiss

--

As for daring, she gives it a rest

Diana Krall

"Quiet Nights"

Verve

* * 1/2

Diana Krall's albums should come with a warning label: Do not use while operating heavy machinery. This is not a knock: Krall's round, relaxed voice is a nuanced instrument ideally suited for, as this album's title indicates, quiet nights. With this collection delving exclusively into the worlds of classic ballads and bossa nova, the singer is in an even quieter place than usual.

Which is a bit of a shame. There's nothing terribly wrong with Krall's breathy take on Antonio Carlos Jobim with a faithfully bouncy "The Boy From Ipanema" and "Quiet Nights"; the songs glide by with such an evenhanded subtlety it's almost subliminal. The only mild frustration is that, other than Krall's tackling of the Portuguese-language "Este Seu Olhar" from Joao Gilberto, there isn't really anything new or unexpected here.

Burt Bacharach's "Walk On By" gets a slightly sassy knock from Krall's vocal turn, but any seductive kick she could have offered gets lost among the soft-focused string arrangements that shadow the whole album.

Still, Krall is in fine voice throughout, and her delicate piano work gets time to shine as well, notably on the bossa nova standard "So Nice." While fans looking for a classic, none-too-jarring soundtrack for a romantic evening surely will follow this record happily into their good night, Krall has offered us more than that in the past.

-- Chris Barton

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