The Lowdown: We are secretly living in an age of great drummers, and Danger Mouse is one of those greats. If the man born Brian Burton had been born a few decades earlier, perhaps he’d be remembered like Max Roach: Beloved by those of us who love drummers, unknown to the normal and sane. But Danger Mouse had the good fortune to be alive during the digital boom, when his other talents could thrust him into the spotlight. His Grey Album was more than a Beatles-Jay Z mashup; it was a seminal moment in hip-hop history, advancing the art of sampling while stretching American copyright laws past their breaking point. Since then, he’s established himself as a career-boosting collaborator and super-producer extraordinaire. His work with MF Doom (as Danger Doom), Cee Lo Green (as Gnarls Barkley) and James Mercer of The Shins (as Broken Bells) were among the most interesting albums made by those artists.
Karen O, of course, is the lead singer of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, an Oscar nominee, and one of the legends of the early 2000’s New York rock scene. She has a voice as high as heaven and as hard as a slap in the face. Yeah Yeah Yeahs started out with lo-fi garage rock, but by 2009’s It’s Blitz!, the band had begun to explore a more polished, danceable sound. Karen O continued to expand her horizons through her soundtrack contributions to movies like Her and Where the Wild Things Are. Both Karen O and Danger Mouse have accomplished many of the things that artists might set out to accomplish, and both have reached an age when many musicians grow complacent. How wonderful it is then to report that Lux Prima sounds vibrant and fresh. Lux Prima is Latin for “First light.” The album delivers on its title, radiating some of the warmth and mystery of a sunrise.
The Good: The collaboration is built on a shared musical vocabulary of rock, funk, disco, and soul. When the moment calls for it, Danger Mouse can evoke the garage rock atmospherics on which Karen O built her career. On “Reveries”, she sings, “Through space I fell,” and her voice sounds like a ghostly message being played on a tape recorder. But Danger Mouse isn’t the kind of producer to leave tracks spare. The song layers on warbling synths and bright synth accents, but just a little at a time. The song works because of its restraint.
For the most part, however, the album prefers a busier sound and glossier finish. “Turn the Light” is the album’s dreamy disco single built around a strutting bass line and crystalline guitars. When mixing, Danger Mouse will sometimes push a single instrument until it’s almost as loud as the vocals. On “Woman”, the drums are all the way forward. The cymbals are urgent and relentless, and Karen O puts them to good use. She snarls, “I’m a woman,” and then vaults up an octave to roar, “What you see!”
“Leopard’s Tongue” is another drum-forward song, at least to start. But the mix catches up when the simple verses explode into the dizzying, shimmering chorus. One of Karen O’s gifts is to imbue a few words with a world of emotion — remember, “They don’t love you like I love you?” — and on “Leopard’s Tongue”, there’s a whole novel’s worth of pain in the way she says, “Used up.”
Lux Prima opens with the title track and ends with “Nox Lumina”, which might be translated as “Night lights.” Both songs are long (nine minutes and six minutes, respectively), and both boast multiple movements along with symphonic dips and swells. But “Nox Lumina” closes the album with a slightly unexpected hip-hop sound. After a moody intro, the drum kit kicks in. Karen O sings, “Every time I close my eyes, someone else is paradise,” in the album’s sexiest song. This energy spent, the drums fade out, and a few dreamy synths put Lux Prima to bed. Altogether, it’s only nine songs long, but these nine songs are well chosen and fully conceived.
The Bad: Much of Lux Prima is fairly fresh territory for Karen O, but longtime fans of Danger Mouse might hear some moments that sound familiar. Brian Burton has a distinctive style and he’s worked a lot over the years. Some of the songs wouldn’t sound out of place on albums by his other collaborators. But Karen O is unlike anyone else he’s worked with. She’s an unusual talent with a forceful personality, and she makes the songs utterly her own.
The Verdict: It’s rare for two icons who have never worked together before to collaborate and actually meet expectations. But that’s just what Karen O and Danger Mouse have done. These are two artists who know when to pull back and when to pile on, with enough technical knowledge to execute their vision and enough passion to work until the little details are right. Lux Prima is a beautiful little album: Ambitious, dreamy, and short enough to leave you wanting more.
Essential Tracks: “Turn the Light”, “Woman”, “Leopard’s Tongue”, and “Nox Lumina”