When Karen O announced that she’d be doing an album exclusively in the vein of her “Her” Oscar-nominated ditty with Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, “Moon Song,” music fans were understandably excited — the viper behind the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’s snarling sound would be showing her soft side, in the form of an album she’d essentially written years ago but was finally letting see the light of day. And when “Crush Songs” finally dropped, preluded by the visual cotton candy video for “Rapt,” it ended up being the kind of stripped down, scruffed up, painstakingly intimate (in both content and recording style) release that only an artist supremely confident in her musical offerings could put out to the world.
For her “Crush Songs” tour, O scaled back accordingly. Gone were the blasting PAs and eye-searing costumes of YYY tours past — now, she was playing gigs in homey venues packed to the gills with people swaying back and forth together, or in some cases, in peoples’ living rooms. For her Los Angeles stop, she opted to take over Hollywood Forever Cemetery’s Masonic Lodge, an indoor-stage-cum-steam-room located on the venue grounds, for three nights.
I arrived early on night three, and settled in for what I expected to be a relatively low energy affair — not necessarily a ding, but based on “Crush Songs” itself, its performance couldn’t be that intense… right?
I shouldn’t have underestimated Karen O as a performer. This is a woman who spit liquids on her audience, and got them to like it. Backed by Moses Sumney and Holly Miranda (established performers on their own) and framed by a free-standing flower-twined portico that held up a neon sign blazoned with the words “CRUSH PALACE,” she took the jagged compositions of “Crush Songs” and blew them up on the stage.
The night began with relatively rote run throughs of new “Crush Songs” tunes, as O played the coy, reserved storyteller of her 20-something emotions. But old habits die hard, and during “Hideaway,” a holdover tune from her “Where The Wild Things Are” contributions, O let loose screams that would’ve seemed at home during her “Fever to Tell” days.
In fact, it was only after “Hideaway,” and the subsequent follow-up of Sumney’s own “San Fran,” that Karen O seemed to really loosen up to her audience. During “King,” she slid on a single sparkling silver glove in an animated but ultimately bittersweet tribute to Michael Jackson. On “Body,” she contorted her own and belted out the lyrics while vigorously shaking sleigh bells and smiling and laughing with the crowd. Then, right before the regular set-ending tune “Day Go By,” Nick Zinner and Brian Chase took the stage with O’s makeshift bandmates, and they turned the low energy ditty into a real floor stomper.
Of course the crowd demanded an encore, and while it was a short one, it was quite the sweet extra set. Holly Miranda took the point vocals on a cover of Radiohead’s “High & Dry,” the only instance of the audience actually singing along to any of the performed lyrics. Afterward, O riffed on the origins of “Singalong,” saying, “When I was a young girl, the age of 27… which is the new 17…” that she’d written the song with two old friends, before performing it. To cap the night off, she performed “The Moon Song” with Sumney covering Koenig’s part.
The biggest criticism people seemed to make about the recorded version of “Crush Songs” was that it was all so unpolished, and seemingly unfinished. Yet it is precisely that rough-around-the-edges quality that makes the live performance so compelling: it allows the artist to buff out the bumps in real time, and to stretch and stress the parts that mean the most in a space where that effort would be received well. “Crush Songs” was meant to be a confessional, and for those of us lucky enough to listen to its live opening run, we left feeling as rawly as O recorded, but with the knowledge that her simple compositions could definitely stand alone in her overall songbook.
“Indian Summer (The Doors cover)”
“Comes The Night”
“San Fran” – Moses Sumney
“Native Korean Rock”
“Day Go By”
“High & Dry (Radiohead cover)” – Holly Miranda