Better Than: Getting a note from a Secret Admirer
In June 2004, Karen Orzolek told SPIN magazine: “The only reason I wanted to be on a major label was for people to hear ‘Maps’… I knew it would be huge from the moment we wrote it. I am a fuckin’ sucker for love songs.” Now, almost a decade later, Karen O has released a whole album of them. The decidedly lo-fi collection, aptly titled Crush Songs, was written and recorded around the time Show Your Bones brought her band Yeah Yeah Yeahs into an increasingly intense spotlight, when Orzolek says (in the hand-penned liner notes to the LP), she was afraid she’d never crush again.
In honor of Crush Songs finally seeing the light of day, Orzolek scheduled a series of intimate shows — three at Sleep No More locale McKittrick Hotel and a final appearance at (le) Poisson Rouge this Friday. In the McKittrick’s Manderley Bar, a pink and blue neon sign hung as a backdrop on the low stage, rechristening the place “Crush Palace,” and when Karen O walked out in a shimmering gold and sheer black floor-length gown, it was hard not to be enamored.
Though Orzolek moved to Los Angeles years ago, opener “NYC Baby” was a fitting reminder that Yeah Yeah Yeahs first rose to prominence in the New York art-punk scene of the early aughts. The song is representative of those that populate the rest of Crush Songs in that it sets a simplistic, lovelorn rhyme to Orzolek’s sparsely strummed guitar; while on record there’s not much going on to differentiate them from demos, the addition of musicians Moses Sumney and Holly Miranda brought a fullness to the performance that the songs otherwise lack. As girl grunge band that dog. sang in the ’90s, by definition a crush must hurt. And live, these songs ache. Orzolek’s voice was resonant and emotive but tempered, unforced, her movements on stage more fluid and controlled than the bombastic antics that made YYYs a must-see act.
And that was OK. Crush Songs is not a Yeah Yeah Yeahs album, and Orzolek is channeling a much softer version of the brazen stage persona she’s been known to exhibit. Her work soundtracking films like Where the Wild Things Are and Her hinted at something more heartfelt and subdued, and her solo set reflected Orzolek’s very human yearning. Ask not whom Orzolek was crushing on when she wrote these songs, as they encompass pretty much everyone she’s ever taken a shine to — including Michael Jackson, whom she’s cited as a major inspiration behind her bold performance style. He gets his own twee tribute in “King,” for which Orzolek donned a sparkling glove and blew kisses at the giggling audience. That, and “Body,” with its first spoken lines and the inclusion of a raucous interlude in which Orzolek finally brought out her famous yelp and shook a set of sleigh bells, provided some of the more lighthearted moments, as did the inspiring “Native Korean Rock.”
But the truly captivating portion of the show — the one which caused Dee Dee of Dum Dum Girls to admit via Instagram that she “cried so many tears” — was the one-two punch of “Sunset Sun” melting into a particularly heartrending version of “Hideaway” from the soundtrack Orzolek penned for Where the Wild Things Are. Surprisingly, she followed it up by giving the stage over to Sumney, who looped his haunting falsetto through vocal effects on “San Fran,” a track from his EP Mid-City Island that floored everyone in the room.
As moving as it was, there’s no arguing that special guests can transform a show into a rare treat, and Orzolek’s rowdy iteration of “Day Go By” saw her enlist YYYs bandmate and “musical soulmate” Nick Zinner on guitar and “Julian” — presumably Casablancas, who heads Crush Songs label Cult Records, though it was hard to tell in the dark — on tambourine. Disappearing for a moment, Karen O and Co. returned to encore with “Singalong” before Orzolek invited Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend to help her nail Grammy-nominated “Moon Song.” They sat close together, trading sweet verses and fond glances, and though the track doesn’t appear on her record, it was a fitting end to the evening. In performing these shows, Karen O attempts to translate an introspective journey: the process of processing emotions that were sometimes raw and painful and other times exultant. Vulnerable and sincere, she offers a piece of herself like a gift, and that’s the mark of a true rock star.
Critical Bias: In 2004 I met YYYs after their show in Cleveland; my friend and I photobombed everyone’s pics with Karen O and Nick Zinner helped me sober up by telling me Knock Knock jokes.
Overheard: “Why don’t WE get a table? I would have paid for a table.” – a K.O. SuperFan who would’ve preferred reserved seating
Overheard 2: “I’ve got to get out of here right now before I start crying my eyes out.” – a patron leaving after “Hideaway”
“Comes the Night”
“Native Korean Rock”
“Day Go By”
“The Moon Song”