As a producer whose tendencies test his sense of restraint, Brian Burton, cognizant and energized, plays to his strengths without playing into his worst habits. Danger Mouse and Karen O are running on instinct and intuition, not intelligence or cleverness in their collaborative album ‘Lux Prima’.
I wear my heart on my sleeve when it comes to the question, “who is the best producer alive today?” The answer is Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, and it’s not even close. The Mouse is a collaborative machine, and he has yet to release a bad record. Shaky moments, sure, but always in method.
Yet for a couple years before the beginning of 2018, he faced a creative arthritis: writer’s block. Brian Burton still wrote music — but the Mouse’s method had gone stale by the time the needle lifted on Broken Bells’ After the Disco. Around that time, Karen O released her lovely but inconsequential Crush Songs. Both artists entered an artistic limbo; one was still applying his time-tested method to increasingly diminishing returns, and another just needed her own goddamn break. It wouldn’t be until 2016 that the two artists, long for recording with each other, finally got it together and started the process on Lux Prima.
Then came the cuts, plugged were the headphones, racked were the nerves, and then they soothed.
‘Lux Prima’ – Karen O, Danger Mouse
Released March 15 via BMG, Lux Prima is Karen O and Danger Mouse’s nine-track collaborative album. Each part on this record plays small yet integral functions – alright, Karen O’s voice plays more than just a small function – but Burton isn’t just relying on the horns; he’s employing them. He’s not addicted to the piano; he’s adjudicating its usefulness. He’s not showboating with the strings; he’s supplying them. The last time a Danger Mouse project sounded this elegant and effortless, he was waxing with Cee Lo Green about gone babies gone, existential boogie monsters, bionic transformations, and feng shui egoism. And in the thirteen-year interval, Danger Mouse’s geomantic techniques, read: production values, have changed.
Sam Cohen’s bassline on “Turn the Light” is gooey, ooey, woozy, oozing goodness to Karen O’s love-me-love-me-not lyrical play and fluttering falsetto, accentuated by a progressively more involved chuck guitar. Drawing the listener in like a silk scarf, coy and coquine taquinage, turning to rough and tumble blues stomping on “Woman.” Karen O’s “what you see” is what you hear is what you get.
Burton is lighting the musical fuse, but it’s Karen O who takes the torch and runs away with him on Lux Prima.
The title track and lead single isn’t just a monstrous exception; but a terrifying rule: this record would be an all encompassing fusion of an ambient milieu with rock, R&B and soul mondaines, warbling with a ghostly art-rock pretentiousness before cutting the crap and earning it with intoxicating orchestral strings to Karen O’s sultry swing.
Moreover, it’s not just these immediate tracks that satisfy with such gumdrop, berry-tone melodies, but on the slow-burn swing-to-me-closely cuts of “Ministry” and “Drown,” Karen O comes to emulate Siobhan de Maré’s glossy vocal flow, and Burton seems intent to sample, rustle, whistle the words “ingenue, ingenue” over Cohen’s synth work. The disaffected Life in Mono echos, unearthed once again, resound still burning, but now on tallow tender and replete with (what else but) moaning violin sections somber and morne, sliding with a nighttime bassline, then shining with (what else but) a glockenspieling piano twinkle.
For such an ambient variety of soul, the Mouse still keeps listeners on their toes. Even on the marching, shining, sleuthing “Leopard’s Tongue,” the guitar goes electric in such a Sixties summer style that once horns do come into play, everything stops and Burton has managed to surprise us again. Further; a baritone boogie on “Redeemer,” a deep-tone loose-tune guitar, allows for some laidback riff work that still has a point, trading talk with Karen O as she outlines the situation: “You’re not coming for me, I’m coming for you.” This record is just a back-and-forth fling of barbs between Burton and O’s bons mots, recalling the interchanging vocal and guitar work on xx and affording “Redeemer,” – but really all of Lux Prima – a minimalist sensibility with maximalist practicality that transfers from track to track.
This is a phenomena shared with Wide Awake, which, not just a triumph of Parquet Courts, was a damn darling effort by Brian Burton, whose recent production credits before 2018 had paused at a purgatorial stage; his skill swallowed whole by his persona, his music no longer standing and demanding attention. We knew when the horns came, we knew the piano would become a big factor, we knew the Mouse, we knew his party tricks.
Or we thought we did. But on Lux Prima, Burton emerges from his persona, a Noah from his Whale, and manages to coalesce, compile, complement the instruments in cohesive harmony, use them to accentuate each other compound listener interest, and with Karen O, dictate to listeners their inspiration. There’s no ad hoc, one-size-fits-all-seats-of-the-pants production mania; each song has been given time to breath along the long-player, deftly timed gusts winding the record west. Any squalling scream gives way to brushing breezes and then builds back up to a crescendo.
Burton reminds that music works best when the sound is dynamic and not a gainsaying guerre du volume.
Burton’s engineering decisions mean that the long-player can loosen and proceed from mood to mood and allow Karen O to inhabit its many modes more effectively. This may seem like a no-brainer, but then Burton would have to be asking The Pixies “where was his mind?” during the recording process of Portugal. The Man’s Evil Friends side two and all of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ The Getaway. Listening to those two records with any frequency is exhausting. Their relative lack of dynamism, coupled with a face-blasting opening run of cuts, means that the second sides are tiredly compressed rather than relaxed and decompressed.
And because on Lux Prima Danger Mouse has refreshed, relaxed collaborators, including multi-instrumentalist Sam Cohen and vocalist Alecia Chakour, and because this record had no threat, no stress of a deadline, it could grow with its executive engineers. Thus, Lux Prima is not forty minutes that feel like ten, nor is it forty-minutes that feel like an hour. It’s forty minutes that feel like forty minutes because the bass flows into the strings, the guitar flows into the horns, the drums flow into the pianos, and the synths flow into Karen O.
No rush, no muss, no fuss. Hell, it even manages to cycle back around and reuse the title track ending to close “Nox Lumina” in good taste, bringing the story back to its beginning. Talk about a Pink Floyd experience.
You’re not coming for me,
I’m coming for you
Not coming for me,
I’m coming for you
– “Redeemer,” Karen O & Danger Mouse
Speaking of experiences, Karen O’s lyricism on this record is a delightful one; whether mimicking the percussive stomp of “Woman,” Kill Bill boogieing on “Redeemer,” shifting vocal and lyrical gears on “Turn the Light,” turning the corner on “Lux Prima’s” introduction, or glossing the strings on “Drown,” she’s on it. Burton knows just how much to lay on when needed, filtering her voice through a Leslie speaker on “Reveries” or adding a slight delay on the chorus of “Leopard’s Tongue.” The latter is, in sum total, a showcase of Karen O’s vocals skills: Fatally swooning on a jazzclub piano, breaking a falsetto on the pre-chorus, crowd corralling the anthemic chorus, then returning to an ASMR-inducing pre-chorus falsetto, she is absolutely prismatic at every step. And that’s a damn credit to this collab.
Let’s just say people should not have been cocky or confident entering the threshold title track of this record. We knew that was good when it was released, but a good lead single never a good record makes. So too would it have been folly to suggest that Wide Awake confirmed Burton’s re-ascendance as the best damn producer in the business, or that Milano reasserted Karen O as a garage-scene queen. No, no.
Lux Prima does the job.
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📸 © Eliot Lee Hazel