Album and concert review Lonely Drifter Karen, Paradiso, Amsterdam 18th of March 2012 – Lonely Drifter Karen are grist to the mill of the pro-Europe campaigners. Singer Tanja Frinta was born in Vienna, moved to Sweden, formed the band in Barcelona with the Majorcan keyboard player Marc Meliá and an Italian drummer. Recently the band moved to Brussels and added a French guitarist to their line up. Sunday evening they were performing in Amsterdam. That’s Schengen for you.
I could do what music critics commonly do and pretend that I am totally familiar with the two albums Lonely Drifter Karen have released in 2008 and in 2010. The truth is that we nipped upstairs on Sunday evening after Laura Marling finished her brilliant bit of ceiling gazing in the main hall. We were not hindered by any prior knowledge of the band with the tacky name playing upstairs, but I ended up being greatly impressed. Not so much with the band’s stage performance, but with the crafty arrangements of the songs and the unusual combination of sounds and styles. After buying and listening to the band’s recently released third album, Poles, I’m even more impressed.
Lonely Drifter Karen are hard to grasp. They go from almost celtic sounding folk-pop to Euro-glo-fi and back, stopping at many unexpected stations in between. Allowing them to do this without sounding like an amalgam of genres are three things. First and foremost, there’s the extraordinary arranging skills of Marc Meliá. The songs on Poles are constructed in a manner that could only have been achieved by a person who is either averse or oblivious to what’s hip or conventional. The fact that for their third album Lonely Drifter Karen have chosen to use some very hip and happening retro-synths saves them from sounding too peripheral European. Not one moment do they stand the risk of sounding contemporary, though. Just listen to the fascinating keyboard arrangements of Eyes of a Wolf and the sticking Q&A between Meliá and guitarist Clément Marion during Velvet Rope.
The second great asset to the band is the incredibly versatile singing voice of Tanja Frinta. She can sound serene like Feist or Lyke Li (on Comet and Hunters to Heaven’s Wild), dark and melancholic like Nancy Sinatra or Lana del Rey (Dizzy Days and Traffic Lights) or even slightly mad like tUnE-yArDs or Róisín Murphy (on Soul Traveller and Velvet Rope). Especially that last mode of singing is in sharp contrast with the timid, almost rigid persona of Frinta on stage. Her shyness is charming, sometimes deplorable, but never distracts from her impressive vocal transformations. What makes them all the more admirable and pleasing is that Frinta never actually sounds like any of the aforementioned female singers. She changes styles without ever losing of the character of her voice. The German twist to certain vowels only adds to the personality of it.
Lonely Drifter Karen manage to mould their many-sidedness into instantly accessible song shapes. The level of songwriting is persistently high, echoing the unbounded craftmanship of Moloko, Beach House and Wir Sind Helden. It’s the third and final reason why I feel that Poles is one of the most interesting releases of the first quarter of 2012.