6/10 With an Austrian lead singer (Tanja Frinta) who has lived variously in Sweden and Spain in recent years, a Spanish keyboard player and producer (Marc Melia Sobrevias), and two French members (Maxime Malon on drums and Clement Marion on guitar, both of whom joined the band this year), Lonely Drifter Karen are an authentically European ensemble – now based, appropriately enough, in that centre of European interaction and cooperation, Brussels. And in the interplay of the various styles, sounds and themes on third album Poles, the diversity of the band’s personnel is reflected in a sometimes striking, sometimes challenging manner.
Truth is, Poles is a rather amorphous record that is difficult to get an overall feel for. Its glorious, tune-rich moments like opening track ‘Three Colors Red’, the stardust- and glitter-strewn ‘Henry Distance’ and lush album highlight ‘Traffic Lights’ are set against a bedding of stylistic volte faces that can perplex. ‘Comet’, for example, features ’80s synths and a Madonna-meets-Cyndi-Lauper vocal to match, while ‘Velvet Rope’ dons a sassy attitude that is only semi-convincing and quickly, thankfully, morphs into the warm and easy-on-the-ear delights of the aforementioned ‘Traffic Lights’. “I’m so confused,” sings Frinta on ‘Hunters To Heaven’s Wild’, and it’s a confusion that might be shared by her listeners as closing track ‘Exactly Light’ swings into view with its far-out cosmic vibe, space opera feel and vocodered vocals.
Frinta’s voice is also a flexible and changeable tool. Through the course of the album she not only channels the aforementioned ’80s pop queens, but also sounds distinctly like Karen Carpenter, coffee-rich and syrup-smooth, on ‘Dizzy Days’; like Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis on ‘Traffic Lights’; and even – yes – that lodestar of quirky-female-vocal-performance comparisons Kate Bush on ‘Eyes Of A Wolf’ (right down to the way that she pronounces her ‘r’s). Add to this mix the occasional quirky touch like the odd disembodied howls (low in the mix but definitely discernible) on ‘Three Colors Red’, the lighthearted yelping of ‘Soul Traveler’ and the concatenation of swooping synth effects that makes up the short interlude of ‘Rain In Beijing’, and it is perhaps unsurprising that Poles comes out the other end as an album that, despite its numerous delightful touches, never quite coheres.