Music

Lonely Drifter Karen: Grass Is Singing

An ex-pat Austrian, an Italian, and a Mallorcan make the most convincing argument yet for Barcelona as Europe’s city of multiculturalism.


Lonely Drifter Karen

Grass Is Singing

Label: Crammed
US Release Date: 2008-06-10
UK Release Date: 2008-05-26
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"Grass is singing on an old whistling graveyard"; so confides the first line of this album’s last song, richly evocative of those Aragonese ghost towns seemingly abandoned on a whim. Maybe Tanja Frinta has tramped through a few in her time. "I walked from cava to napoli, I could need a friend today": Lonely Drifter Karen’s resident gypsy wears her itinerant spirit, if not on sleeves which offer an embrace of "árboles y pájaros" (birds and trees), then at least on the brim of her floppy brown beany. After a spell limbering up her talents in a Swedish indie band, the ex-punk-turned-freewheeling-bohemian ended up in Barcelona, where she found more than a friend in Mallorcan pianist Marc Melià Sobrevias. Together with Italian drummer Giorgio Menossi, they make the kind of music that only continental Europeans can make, a sound that makes your brain flutter and your heart go oompah.

It’s a meeting of North and South condensed in that last song, "La Hierba Canta", where the frozen North’s hopelessly romanticist fantasy of the South meets at least a little of the reality and comes out playing like a higher-brow Abba, where the sleeve-art fantasy of a (definitively un-Led-ed) Zeppelin airship and the Sagrada Família sharing the same skyline is almost within touching distance. It sounds fantastic, with at least something of the power of a modern day parable. The rest of the album is just as striking, digesting so many different influences, in so many surrealist scenarios, through so many sweetly pining melodies, that it literally compels repeated listening just to know where to get a foothold.

Sequencing "This World Is Crazy" as opener might have risked Frinta being filed safely under Björk-ian whimsy inside the first minute (especially given her naming of the band after a Lars Von Trier character), but even Björk hasn’t written a neo-yodelling tribute to a ukulele. While George Formby is eating his heart out somewhere beyond the grave, Frinta wanders nonchalantly on over a pan-European horizon aglow with the washed-out flicker of myriad stage and screen scores, from Frintas’ Sound-of-Musicals childhood and the pied-piping of Yann Tiersen, to Quiller Memorandum/Ipcress File-era John Barry and the Sicilian trill of Ennio Morricone. Shostakovich’s martial glower lurks in "Passengers of the Night", while Kurt Weill -- metaphorically speaking -- embarks on a clandestine liaison with Kate Bush amid the operatic Sturm und Drang of "Salvation".

Central to it all is the threatrical attraction between Frinta’s vocals and Sobrevias’ piano, underscored by the latter’s Parisian thrift shop arrangements. While she prances and soars to the smell of imaginary greasepaint, flaunting all the phrasal verve of an Austrian Cerys Matthews and getting away with all but the most affected vowels, he plays it straight in a classically sheened style, with the pleasantry of Richard Carpenter, the footlit élan of Stephen Sondheim and the soul of old Spain. The pair shadow each other with the grace of afternoon lovers, through the queasy switchbacks and carousel twinkle of every other bar.

On "Casablanca", a ballad of Broadway proportions, Sobrevias’ empathy of touch and tone is simply exquisite. On occasion he traces Frinta’s vocal: while his wordless bass notes land like the evil eye on Lhasa-meets-Vespers standout, "Carousel Horses", and his brief cries of passion and emsemble contributions on "La Hierba Canta" are more than welcome, spoken word additions to "The Angels Sigh" come out slightly stilted, a sole instance of creative misjudgement. There’s also childish humour and wit aplenty, not only in the lyrics: shivering timbers, Clangers-style samples and a cartoon miaow are brilliantly spliced into "True Desire", conjuring Sparks re-cutting the soundtrack to Black Cat, White Cat. Even when they play it as conventional folk-pop the effect is dazzling, Sobrevias taking off his pork pie hat, pulling out his guitar, and sinking into the pellucid rusticisms of "Giselle", Frinta losing the Judy Garland and appropriating a little of the Mazzy Star.

In fact, there’s not a weak track on the whole record, an entirely unexpected example of a supposedly outdated format drawing its divergent sources into a creative plan of no little grandness. It also suggests the chemistry of cross-border romance is heap powerful medicine. Let’s hope, then, there’s more in the cabinet, that Frinta and co. don’t simply go softly into that "salty Swedish night". Sublime.

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