With a pan-European sensibility and a desire to escape the safety of a mittel-European home for the extremes of the continental compass, Austrian singer Tanja Fritta decamped to Gothenburg where she began performing under the name of Lonely Drifter Karen. Having experienced some of that famous midnight sunshine she ventured back south, bypassing her homeland for a new life in Barcelona.
While in the Catalonian capital, Lonely Drifter Karen tripled in personnel as Italian drummer Giorgio Menossi and Majorcan keyboard player and arranger Marc Meliá Sobrevias were both co-opted into Fritta’s project. The happy result of this winding journey was a 2008 debut that shared a name with a Doris Lessing novel, The Grass Is Singing. Described as “twinkly avant-pop” it did a good job of charming reviewers into freely dropping words like “magical” into their written impressions.
Second album Fall Of Spring is another slice of off-kilter sunny charm, cycling its way through the byways of European pop-quirk and Weimar era cabaret, travelling through candyfloss and dreamlike states beyond the grey mundane. With Fritta’s sometimes fragile voice set against lush and surprising arrangements, it’s a curious confection that never lets you get properly settled. As sweet as it sounds there is something unsettling beneath the surface niceties.
“Hold me in your claws, sharp and warm” begins the swirling opener ‘Dis-In-Motion’. A sleepless vocal overplays a mesmerising introduction, before a park band plays a distant brass break that prompts a surprising pop-laced chorus, high-kicking its way back round to the song’s fragile beginnings. Familiar yet odd, it wiggles you gently off balance before dragging you into the middle of the road and demanding you sing along as if it were your BFF. If it were a human you might start to get worried.
Two wheels are undoubtedly good, and much of Fall Of Spring sounds like the soundtrack to a gentle bike ride down the byways of European musical traditions. The flamenco handclaps and foot stomps on ‘A Roof Somewhere’ raise enough duende to stir the ghost of Federico García Lorca as a drilling, muffled beat and passionate vocal sweeps up into a short but effective bluster. The warm gypsy jazz opening of ‘Show Your Colours’, with its peculiar whispers and clouds that look like sinister cigarettes, soothes its way into the tree-lined groves of a Francophile chorus. Handclaps and pursed-lip whistles precede a vocal that asks if you’d like salt in your coffee.
A couple of foot thumps on the floor return you back to the Parisian cycle ride and all feels well again. As the fairground organ cascades and wide-eyed oddness twirls about beneath the breathy innocence of the vocal, a startling little pop gem weasels out. The triumphalist horn fanfare before ‘Ready To Fall’ sounds like it emanates from a Napoleonic army at play before giving way to a mid-paced piece of dreamy, cooed pop.
If this is the album’s most commercial moment, then ‘Something’s Scorching’ returns proceedings to their peculiar best. Here, a squelchy, almost jazzy banjo line bemoans the passivity of the song’s subject as a bluesy honky-tonk rhythm underplays a vocal that stretches to shriek and wail without ever losing its tender immediacy. The wistful piano of ‘Seeds’ closes the album. It’s a late-night cabaret full of earthy imagery, given a dissonant darkness by guest vocalist Emily Jane White, the two singers spinning a web of compelling but possibly destructive friendship around the bones of one another‘s words.
Lonely Drifter Karen drink from a variety of musical wells, drawing sustenance from interrelated traditions and conjuring it into something which sounds slickly coherent and accomplished while never being too easy to fully comprehend. It’s a Europhile’s delight, from the accented English to the charms of its gentle sun-kissed cabaret. Fall Of Spring is like the varied geography of a beautiful but frequently fractious continent. Deceptively sweet, the more you listen the more you realise that beneath the most tranquil of musical landscapes there lurks layers of shared hidden history.
[Crammed Discs; April 19, 2010]