Karen O and Danger Mouse Dream up a Colorful Sonic Universe on ‘Lux Prima’
There are select artists whose work always bears a stamp so novel and distinctive as to guarantee virtually unanimous agreement regarding their being leaps and bounds above their peers. Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O has always demonstrated a persona entirely of her own, showcasing itself in everything from her crazed, punk rock stage antics to her unique sense of style. For her latest work, she’s teamed up with none other than Danger Mouse, the very definition of a musical auteur. Since the days when he seriously shook things up with his impertinently genre-bending “Grey Album,” he has taken up roles in Gnarls Barkley and Broken Bells, and produced for as disparate artists as Gorillaz and Norah Jones, turning out consistently compelling works that could hardly be mistaken for the work of anyone else. On “Lux Prima,” he and Karen O craft a set of songs that channels the energy and sentiments from decades of rich music history, while blending each other’s quirk and charisma into a thoroughly enjoyable and unique listen. Fitting with its imaginative and immersive nature, the release comes with a “multisensory art installation,” titled “An Encounter with Lux Prima” on display April 18-21 at L.A.’s Marciano Art Foundation.
“Lux Prima,” meaning “first light,” opens with a lofty panned shot, fit to a cinematic overture that eases gently into a rhythm and takes off. Everything from Danger Mouse’s elaborate toolkit to Karen O’s signature inflections function largely to ground the music in a bygone era, immediately bringing a surge of the romance intrinsic in such sounds. There are traces of sixties psychedelia, and winsomely free vocals from Karen, who throws in sprightly, whimsical interjections and intimate whispers over the ambitious, multi-phase track. Next, “Ministry” begins with some pristine ambience, and finds anchoring in a beat that might strike at first as an odd pairing, but in a moment becomes just right. It’s quite characteristic of Danger Mouse, whose background splicing and sorting samples sometimes motivates unconventional compositional choices that give this album a singular perspective. The song is mellow and lighthearted, but simultaneously rather dramatic in its lush, ethereal stylings. With a sprawling arrangement and an infectious chorus, it’s as if the aesthetic intimated on the opening track has at once been stretched out and found full focus.
There’s a considerable shifting of gears come “Turn the Light,” with a basic, uncluttered beat that packs an unanticipated punch. Karen’s vocals at first sound exceptionally, say, soulful, as if she’s trying out new variations of her trademark delivery. It’s a funky cut with a driving, brittle bassline and propulsive chugging guitar bits. By the time of the chorus, the song has taken on pop parameters as giddy and girly as perhaps something by Kylie Minogue. Then things get darker and edgier with the absolutely exhilarating centerpiece “Woman.” Over an insistent, plodding, mechanical beat, and lyrics like “If you want it, then you take it,” Karen channels the spirit of sixties protest music with hummed refrains that occasionally recall the Native American song from that “Pure Moods” commercial, along with lively call-and-response theatrics. She settles, for this track, into her most idiosynctatic singing, all punk shrieks and hiccups, abounding with personality, as Danger Mouse punctuates her antics with brutally heavy guitar stabs.
“Redeemer” builds around a vaguely surf guitar line, with a little James Bond theme flavor, meanders through delightfully raw, sporadic bursts of noise, and falls into an irresistible groove. By this point, there is a distinct sonic theme to this album, and one that has been painstakingly and thoroughly realized. One remarkable feature is how the songs alternate between bright, buoyant numbers and dreamy, loungey ruminations with such convincing fluidity. “Drown” launches back into the latter category, and effectively transports the listener to another world, with breathy, languid singing, and more of the recurring swirling electric keyboard and ornate string arrangements. Some suggestive panting vocals midway make for an especially colorful moment, a particular example of the dramatic playfulness that is so integral to Karen O’s style.
For “Leopard’s Tongue,” the duo put on a soul stomper, evoking the Motown styles of such acts like the Four Tops. Karen’s rather alien, winding melodies make for a bit of an odd moment, but she falls into such immediately evocative form upon the chorus that everything falls into place. There are more quirky, hushed inflections, and more gorgeous attention to instrumental detail, with things like fleeting keyboard passages making worlds of difference. Lyrics get steamy with lines like “One touch and you ask for more / Two touch and you’re on the floor.” The throwback stylings continue on “Reveries,” a piecey pause in the festivities, with Karen filling the waves on a vintage microphone, over lagging guitar chords, until eventually becoming enveloped in soaring strings. The appropriately titled closer “Nox Lumina,” meaning “last light,” arrives a natural culmination of all that came before, with the evocative orchestration, the understated funk stylings, clipped, chirpy vocal melodies, cartoonish flourishes, and abundant nostalgic warmth.
It can really give one pause to reflect upon the odds that two like Karen O and Danger Mouse would serendipitously end up joining forces. It’s as if the most creatively restless and stylistically bold naturally rise above the rest and gravitate toward one another. While such ventures typically come announced in excessive hype, often practically destined to disappoint, “Lux Prima” is a consistently satisfying undertaking. Entirely free of artifice or star power gimmickry, it runs like a natural meshing of musical instincts, recasting romanticized sounds with revisionary creative spark.
“Lux Prima” is available March 15 on Apple Music.