Release Date: Sep 9, 2014
Record label: Cult Records
For the past decade or so, Karen O, the lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, has proven to be one of the most difficult-to-pin-down musicians not only in her native New York, but in the American indie scene as a whole. She can produce frantic rock barnburners like the YYYs’ “Sacrilege” and “Zero” or her cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” for the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo soundtrack. On the other hand, she can produce ballads of an intense intimacy and beauty like the YYYs’ universally-beloved “Maps” or her Oscar-nominated “The Moon Song” from 2013’s Her.
Head here to submit your own review of this album. Ever had a crush? Ever had a crush on Miss Orzolek? Have you felt this feeling was not directly responded to by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' front-woman? Crush Songs, is your long-awaited reply. "They are the soundtrack to what was an ever continuing love crusade. I hope they keep you company on yours," Karen O explains in reference to the tracks on her debut solo record.
Anyone surprised at the direction that Karen O’s first solo album takes has clearly not been paying very much attention. Because while it’s hugely tempting to cast the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as a hedonistic, party now, worry when you’re dead kind of act, that has only ever been a part of their charm. Every Yeah Yeah Yeahs album has had (at least) a moment of doubt, of self examination, and of sadness.
Demos are funny things. Microcosms of what was, will or, might be, and even what never transpired. Evidence of potential realised and others lost. A bit like crushes, if you will. So in a world where it’s possible to create a studio ‘proper’ with little more than the right computer software ….
Karen O has always had a thriving career outside of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Most notably, her collaborations with Spike Jonze -- the Grammy-nominated music for 2009's Where the Wild Things Are and the Oscar-nominated "The Moon Song" from 2013's Her -- revealed her as a thoughtful solo artist with a range that went beyond her band's already eclectic music. While her official debut album, Crush Songs, a collection of lo-fi songs dating back to 2006, is far from showy, it continues in this witty, heartfelt, largely acoustic vein.
Crushes are like fever dreams—crystal clear in the moment, but a cluster of unresolved emotions after the fact. Clearly, Karen O has experienced her share of fleeting love interests. On her first solo album, a fuzzy bundle of 15 tracks written and recorded between 2006 and 2007, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman and purveyor of all things art-punk explores the subject in scattered, bare-bones bursts.
Beneath the flamboyant punk insanity, the mic-in-mouth howls and the glitter-encrusted, spiky-hipped strut, one fundamental reason that Yeah Yeah Yeahs rank amongst the most scintillating and adored bands of the century is their honeycomb heart, always threatening to crumble. It was there in the no-wave tears and trembles of ‘Maps’, while ‘Skeletons’, ‘Runaway’ and ‘Little Shadow’ made 2009’s ‘It’s Blitz!’ a masterpiece of lasers and lonesomeness. Now we get to peek at the origins of that album’s downbeat wonders.
Karen O stands as the ultimate New York punk goddess – with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, she's screamed her way through four great albums in a row. Her extracurricular projects have included everything from movie soundtracks to an opera, but Crush Songs is a much mellower affair. These are low-fi home recordings she made in 2006 and 2007, casually plucking her acoustic guitar.
A few weeks ago a large number of music hacks first smirked at the idea of a Michael Cera album, then were rather charmed by the Michael Cera album, then elected not to write about the Michael Cera album, on the grounds that it was essentially just a bunch of lo-fi demos bunged up on line for free. Receiving a full international release on her pal Julian Casablancas’s freshly-minted Cult Records label – there’s a limited edition vinyl and everything – Karen O’s Crush Songs is clearly ‘fair game’ in a way that Cera’s offering wasn’t. Nonetheless, it’s similarly hard to exactly know to what standards one should hold what is, in essence, a collection of seven-year-old demos that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs leader had been sitting on since a period in her life (between Show Your Bones and It’s Blitz!) when ‘I crushed a lot… ’.
Karen O could have titled her debut solo album “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” Though it has nothing to do with Jonathan Safran Foer's 2005 novel of that name, the first solo work from the singer of Brooklyn's Yeah Yeah Yeahs has a harshness, and an imbalance, guaranteed to make you flinch or cower. At least it will have that effect at first. Ironically, the music on “Crush” consists almost entirely of delicately plucked or lightly strummed acoustic guitars and O's whispered voice.
As vocalist for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Karen O delights in finding moments of fragility amongst her band's fury. Though she can be as fierce the most ferocious of punk sirens, it's little surprise that it was Fever to Tell's "Maps" that made her into an indie superstar. After grabbing your attention with force through the album's first eight songs, she begged, softly, for you to "wait" and listen to her at her most intimate, her most restrained.Crush Songs is O's first solo album — following contributions to Spike Jonze's films Where the Wild Things Are and Her — and it's all restraint, all fragility.
Earlier this year Karen O received an Oscar nomination for Moon Song, an acoustic love song whose nigh-on nursery-rhyme lyricism was undercut by a tangible melancholy ("But with you my dear/ I'm safe and we're a million miles away"). It turns out that this wasn't the first time that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer, better known for up-front rock and ebullient electronic pop, had explored her lo-fi side. In 2006-7 she recorded a baker's dozen of such tracks, released now on Julian Casablancas's Cult label.
Each track on Karen O's long-awaited debut solo album is as short and fleeting as the summer flings she sings about. O wrote this collection of lo-fi ditties back in 2006 and 2007, after the Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman split from filmmaker Spike Jonze - a period, she says, when she felt like she'd never fall in love again. The 15 songs sound more like demos than final recordings - most don't even reach the two-minute mark - and feature O's vulnerable, trembling vocals over a lilting guitar and maybe the soft bleeps of a drum machine or piano.
Karen O opens “NYC Baby”, a minute-long track off her solo debut, with a quiet “One… two… ready go…” She whispers the words carefully, as though she’s less interested in establishing a tempo than she is in not waking a sleeping child. Featuring only acoustic guitar and hushed vocals, the song sounds like a nursery rhyme set to a wisp of a melody, building on obvious rhymes (city/pity) and worrying a single sentiment (she misses someone) until it’s threadbare. It’s not a song so much as it is the memory of one, something hummed while doing housework or waiting for the subway.
Most of us presumed that Karen O could do quite well solo. Even without the heroic backing of her poppy neo-no-wave cohorts in Yeah Yeah Yeahs, she's always been a figure unto herself with her magnetic stage presence and insouciant personality. Crush Songs, her first solo recording on Julian Casablancas' nascent Cult Records imprint, doesn't defy that impression, but it doesn't do much to bolster it either.
Rough drafts aren’t for sharing. An end product should be so astounding that seeing an early sketch detracts from the final reveal. A few close friends may be granted an early peek, but it’s for good measure, to assure the artist that they’re on the right path. When a project is ditched altogether, its rough drafts can be mesmerizing to view — as long as we remember the promised product doesn’t actually exist.
Karen O.Crush Songs(Cult)Rating: 2 out of 5 stars Listening to tapes of songs recorded privately in the home of a singer/songwriter is akin to reading someone’s personal diary. These 15 primitive performances from 2006/2007 capture Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ often frantic frontwoman Karen O. in the most sedate and fragile of moods. In that sense they are closer to “The Moon Song,” her Oscar nominated contribution to Spike Jones’ Her movie, than to most of the material from the band she has fronted since 2001.
A collection of lo-fi, half-baked solo material consisting solely of vocals, acoustic guitar, ukulele, and the occasional programmed loop or synth, Karen O's Crush Songs feels contrived, even disingenuous. Even in 2006 and 2007, when these 15 songs were reportedly recorded (though that timeline doesn't seem quite right, given the lyrical content of “King,” a charming ode to Michael Jackson, who died in 2009), contemporary digital technology made it fairly easy to record demos of reasonable sound quality. One or two of these little zygotes of songs would be curious oddities on a more fully fleshed-out album, but en masse they quickly become monotonous.
Needless to say, Karen O is allowed to record and release whatever the hell she wants. But, given her status as ever-“It Girl” and figurehead of a movement (even if that movement was as much about geography as music, i.e. the early ’00s NYC music scene axis shift from lower Manhattan to Williamsburg), any new release from her is leadened with indie rock import that probably isn’t realistic.
opinion byMATTHEW M. F. MILLER What exactly is the difference between a love song and a crush song? Apparently, duration. And while there are no definitive answers as to what constitutes a song per se, there’s a valid argument to be made that the title of Karen O’s solo debut, Crush Songs, is a misnomer for what’s really a collection of 15 lo-fi, sad-sack sketches of unrequited and unfulfilled promise – both sonically and lyrically.
As might be expected from the frontwoman of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Karen O’s songs on Crush Songs are spare, short, and lovely—most tracks are accompanied with just her own guitar. It’s the type of thing to hear live at the archetypal coffeeshop of the ’90s—a simple setup, a powerful vocalist, and a sound that is almost painfully vulnerable and feminine. According to the material O’s written while promoting the album, Crush Songs is a work almost 8 years old, from when she was 27 and “crushed a lot.
Unlike the extremities of love, those that remain too inhospitable to want to remember even long after they're dead, a crush can be another thing entirely. Often, one can hold onto its beginning moments, whether it was a coffee or a kiss, and on Karen O's first full length, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs lead singer takes on the ephemeral but eternally sweet nature of puppy love. Crush Songs consists of a collection of tunes recorded by O between 2006 and 2007, a time when her band was really beginning to rev up.
An intrinsic cog in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ machine, Karen Lee Orzolek wields a glorious notoriety for being an ardent experimentalist, perpetual oddball and, frankly, one of the finest rock singers – scratch that, singers full stop – of the century. It’s tough to imagine that she has many complaints about the cult of personality that surrounds her. We’ve heard many an effort from Karen O alongside Nick Zinner and Brian Chase, last year’s Mosquito being the most recent, but sadly not one of the strongest.