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Karen O's Intimate, Unpolished Solo Debut

Karen O's new debut album is called Crush Songs. (Courtesy of the artist )

Karen O, best known as the frontwoman of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, earned an Oscar nomination for her soundtrack contribution to Her, a love story about a copywriter and his computer's operating system. The film captured an exquisite sense of modern loneliness — the same kind that defines Karen O's new album, Crush Songs. It's her "official" full-length debut under her own name, though her solo career began inadvertently in 2006 when a demo recording titled KO at Home leaked onto the Internet.

In some ways, Crush Songs — out on Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas' Cult Records — is a puzzling record: just 26 minutes long, with 15 songs, most around two minutes or less. The whole thing sounds as if it were recorded onto a voicemail message through an early-20th-century flip phone. Now, I'm a fan of Karen O's, but I found this incredibly irritating — at first. Then I sat down with the record, not in a coffee shop but alone in a quiet room, and the songs did their work.

There's "King Karen," a sweet mash note about Michael Jackson up in heaven, and a ghostly one-minute cover of The Doors' "Indian Summer." "Native Korean Rock" is a clear contender, even on first listen, for maybe the greatest empathetic anthem of Karen O's career.

Karen O made these recordings by herself, I'm told, apparently with minimal equipment. But part of me wants to hear these songs expanded, arranged, produced. I keep going back to them, obsessively, hoping they'll grow or resolve differently. Then I remember the album's name: Crush Songs, about relationships that are — by definition — unrealized and unresolved, that get underneath your skin and stick there. And then I think: Okay, Karen O. Point well made.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Singer Karen O is best known as the wild front-woman of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a band formed in 2000 and helped define that decade's rock music. Karen O's solo career began by accident, with a leaked demo recording in 2006. More recently, she's done work on film soundtracks. Well, this week, Karen O released her official debut solo album. It's called "Crush Songs." And critic Will Hermes found it both difficult and captivating.

WILL HERMES: Karen O earned an Oscar nomination for her soundtrack contribution to "Her" - the love story of a copywriter, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and his computer's operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. The film captured an exquisite sense of modern loneliness, the same kind that defines Karen O's new album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAPT")

KAREN O: (Singing) Do I really need another habit like you? I really need - do you need me too? I believe it's going to leave me blue.

HERMES: In some ways, this is a very puzzling record. Just 26 minutes long, but with 15 songs, most around two minutes or less. And the whole thing sounds kind of like it was recorded onto a voicemail message through an early 20th century flip-phone. Now, I'm a fan of Karen O's, but I found this incredibly irritating - at first. And then I sat down with the record - not in a coffee shop, but alone in a quiet room. And the songs did their work.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAY GO BY")

KAREN O: (Singing) Going to call the doctor, doctor. Just tell him that my pain is gone. It's gone, gone, gone, gone, gone, gone, gone.

HERMES: There's a sweet mash note here about Michael Jackson up in heaven, a ghostly one minute cover of The Doors "Indian Summer" and a clear contender, even on first listen, for maybe the greatest empathetic anthem of Karen O's career.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NATIVE KOREAN ROCK")

KAREN O: (Singing) No one understands, you can't throw punches kid, when you're sitting on your hands.

HERMES: Part of me wants to hear these songs expanded, arranged, produced. I keep going back to them, obsessively hoping they'll grow or resolve differently. And then I remember the album's name - "Crush Songs" - about relationships that are, by definition, unrealized and unresolved, that get underneath your skin and stick there. And then I think, OK, Karen O, point well made.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINGALONG")

KAREN O: (Singing) Sing along, sing it anyway.

SIEGEL: The album from Karen O is titled "Crush Songs." Our critic Will Hermes is author of the book "Love Goes To Buildings On Fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINGALONG")

KAREN O: (Singing) Sing it anyway. Sing along, your favorite song. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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