An odd couple makes a fab album
- Badass punk rocker Karen O and producer Danger Mouse are an unlikely combination
- On their new album, Lux Prima, they show how opposites can also make magic
On the face of it, Karen O and Danger Mouse seem to have just one thing in common: They’re about the same age—she’s 40; he’s 41. Otherwise, the contrast between the two musicians couldn’t be sharper. At gigs with her New York-based garage punk band, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Karen O (birth name: Karen Lee Orzolek) always puts up a badass act. Last summer at the Governors Ball concert in New York, she whipped the microphone around, then put it inside her mouth, ran and leapt on stage and belted out some of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ most popular songs, holding the audience in thrall. She’s known to spray beer out of her mouth, spit on herself, and do the most outrageous punk-like things while she performs.
Danger Mouse (birth name: Brian Burton) is exactly the opposite at the few gigs he can be spotted at. The six-time Grammy award-winning record producer, songwriter and musician has worked with a roster of bands and artists that can seem mind-boggling—and genre-defying. He has produced records for the Black Keys, Gorillaz, U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Norah Jones and rapper A$AP Rocky, and that doesn’t even cover half the list of musicians he has been associated with. In a 2012 video of a London gig by Gnarls Barkley, the band formed by Burton and R&B, soul and hip hop singer CeeLo Green, you can see him sitting unassumingly at the keyboards while Green sings upfront with a showman’s flair.
Yet, Burton is a phenomenon. In 2004, he burst upon the scene when one of his creations, a mash-up of The Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album, was leaked on the internet, leading to copyright issues and other controversies, but, more importantly, it pitchforked him into the limelight. Since then it has been a quick and eventful ride to stardom, and, today, Burton, better known as Danger Mouse, is probably one of contemporary music’s most sought-after producers—by everyone, even film-makers.
For the 2017 film Baby Driver, he collaborated with Run the Jewels and Big Boi to produce a track titled Chase Me. His latest project is what could might seem an unlikely collaboration: He and the South Korea-born Karen O have just released an album titled Lux Prima, which upends what you might have expected till now from both musicians.
The collaboration’s genesis does have the trademark Karen O style though. It is believed to have begun more than 10 years ago when the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ singer made a spur-of-the-moment drunken call to Burton proposing that they work together.
Mind you, Karen O has another side too. Her wild performances and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ uncompromisingly sound may tempt critics to pigeonhole her. But since the early years of her band, she has forayed into interesting side projects. She has collaborated with bands such as The Flaming Lips, Swans, and the hip hop DJ NASA. And she has contributed to the soundtracks of many films, including doing a version of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited for I’m Not There, a 2007 film inspired by the life of Dylan.
Cinematic is probably the best way to describe the new album that the duo has made. Lux Prima (it means “first light" in Latin) has nine songs that could be the soundtrack to a captivating film that comes with expansive, grandiose cinematography. It is appropriate that Danger Mouse and Karen O are planning to present the album at a “multi-sensory art installation", with lights, projections and other devices, in Los Angeles on 18 April.
Lux Prima is an exquisitely crafted album on which Karen O, if you’ve heard her records or watched her shows with Yeah Yeah Yeahs, will surprise you with her transformation: from punk’s bad girl vocalist to a hauntingly, ethereal singer. Her vocals and Danger Mouse’s brilliant music combine to make the album a hypnotic experience for the listener. Each of the nine songs on the album is so immersive that it can seem otherworldly but also pleasingly calming. Karen O’s Yeah Yeah Yeahs brand of screaming, growling and yelping is substituted by a soft lilt that occasionally soars heavenwards and envelops you rather warmly, showing her talent.
The duo explores more than one genre on Lux Prima. On Ministry, Karen O sings in falsetto in a style reminiscent of trip hop; on Woman, it’s a fiery punk-meets-blues style; on Redeemer, by far my favourite track on the album, she sounds gritty, and the music, accentuated by the brooding guitar work of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner (who appears on a couple of other songs too), recalls 1960s’ rock.
The differences in their provenance notwithstanding, it is obvious that Burton and Karen O complement each other perfectly. Burton’s attention to detail and willingness to experiment match well with Karen O’s efforts to transcend her punk image and create a performance that is mature and sophisticated.
For a reality check, after I had listened to Lux Prima in its entirety, I played my favourite Yeah Yeah Yeahs album, Fever To Tell (2003), which is also their debut full-length (they have, in all, four). Yes, on it Karen O is boisterous and nowhere near as calm as she sounds on Lux Prima, yet, in retrospect, even in those early songs, you can discern the talent inherent in her vocal abilities. As for Burton, Lux Prima proves once again that his genius knows no bounds.
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
THE LOUNGE LIST
Five tracks to bookend your week
1. ‘Redeemer’ by Karen O and Danger Mouse from ‘Lux Prima’
2. ‘Woman’ by Karen O and Danger Mouse from ‘Lux Prima’
3. ‘Lux Prima’ by Karen O and Danger Mouse from ‘Lux Prima’
4. ‘Crazy’ by Gnarls Barkley from ‘St Elsewhere’
5. ‘Y Control’ by Yeah Yeah Yeahs from ‘Fever To Tell’