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Karen O Bares Soul with 'Crush Songs'

Karen O-Crush Songs-Cult Records-4.5 STARS

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After years of evolution, Karen O is back where she started. As the combustible frontwoman of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, she’s gone from lo-fi freakouts to synth-heavy punk, from maximalist alien-core to sharing the Oscar stage with Ezra Koenig. But with “Crush Songs,” her first proper solo album, O (short for Orzolek) returns to the low-tech tape recorders on which she cut her teeth.

Actually, labeling the album a return is a bit unfair. Its 15 sparse, acoustic love ditties were recorded between 2006 and 2010, and while they share the tape hiss of O’s early work with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, they’re much more delicate, having more in common with O’s “The Moon Song” from “Her” than the roaring and bashing of 2003’s “Fever to Tell.” But while “Crush Songs” may be loose, even borderline unfinished, it also hits hard, shattering its bedroom-pop trappings with unfiltered emotional heft.

Karen O has admitted that the record’s songs weren’t intended for release, at least at first. They were outlets for her buried feelings, more impulsive bursts of steam than well-crafted compositions. Her melodies sound almost improvised as they float over makeshift beds of loosely strummed guitar—and in the case of “Visits,” a clunky drum machine. That track sounds particularly impromptu, as O plucks a single note on her guitar while repeating “I don’t know / I don’t / I don’t / I don’t / know.” It feels a little slight, but at just a minute and a half, “Visits” has no delusions of grandeur.

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Not a single track breaks the three-minute mark, and while some cuts don’t quite get off the ground, most songs soar. While lead single “Rapt” is structurally simple—a few verses, a few choruses—its loping melody hypnotizes from the whispered count-off to the cat-like squeal at the end. O packs the song with a delicate lyrical back-and-forth, detailing the irrationality of love by asking, “Do I really need / Another habit like you,” and then impulsively answering, “I really need / Do you need me too?”

But for all its hidden complexity, “Crush Songs” is the sound of a woman emptying her heart into a tape recorder, and its most powerful moments are its most raw. “Body” is a simple four-chord mantra: “Make it right for yourself / If you love somebody / Anybody.” They’re uplifting words, but O’s wavering voice sounds wounded, as if she’s trying to convince herself that “There will always be someone else.” Her false positivity finally breaks at the end of the song, when she plunges into an uptempo interlude filled with the wordless screeching that would be common on a typical Yeah Yeah Yeahs record. But unlike on the band’s albums, which are littered with black comedy, O’s screaming on “Body” is a moment of earnest catharsis.

It’s tempting to wish that O had done more with these rough demos. Imagine a full band rendition of the poppy but personal “Native Korean Rock” (O is half Korean), or a version of the melancholy ballad “NYC Baby” with touches of strings or a subdued guitar solo. But these are songs born of emotion, and the album’s magnetism lies in the fact that it’s a document of feelings being put to words and music for the first time. In an era when even the most indie of indie bands are using digital trickery and striving for pristine sound, there’s something to be said for a record made impulsively, at home, with friends instead of session recruits. O has plenty of years ahead of her to please critics and tickle eardrums. For now, she’s doing just fine piercing hearts.

—Staff writer Tree A. Palmedo can be reached at tree.palmedo@thecrimson.com.

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