Karen O Brings ‘Crush Songs’ to Life at New York's Manderley Bar

Loren Wohl
Karen O performs at The McKittrick Hotel in New York City in September 2014.

A neon sign shone through the smoke-filled haze of the Manderley Bar at the McKittrick Hotel, where a small standing crowd, with smartphones at the ready, awaited the evening’s headliner, Karen O. Crush Palace, the heart-shaped sign read, a nod to Karen O’s first solo album, Crush Songs, which was released Sept. 9.

When Karen O finally made her entrance at midnight, she began the evening with a series of emotional love ballads, as she stood statuesque in a long-sleeved, floor-length gold sheer dress and peep-toe platform heels. Much like Crush Songs’ pencil-drawn album art, her music feels stripped down and skeletal compared to the louder and showier tunes she sings as the frontwoman of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

She recorded most of the music in 2006 and 2007. “When I was 27 I was crushed a lot. I wasn't sure I'd ever fall in love again,” she wrote in the album’s initial announcement. “They are the soundtrack to what was an ever continuing LOVE CRUSADE. I hope they keep you company on yours.”

Instead of indulging in concert antics as she does with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Karen O eased the audience with mellow songs from her new album like “Indian Summer,” “Beast,” and “Rapt.” She has released a haunting music video for “Rapt” of her floating in a pool of water wearing a red dress.

Red seemed to be the theme of the evening as the low, crimson-tufted ceiling and walls of the Manderley appeared to envelop the small stage, as Karen O offered a window into her personal experiences. The neon sign flickered, coming on and off throughout the set, as Karen O made generous use of the lights and haze to create a chilling, confessional effect, apropos of her setting at the McKittrick where the macabre Macbeth-meets-Hitchcock show Sleep No More plays.

She connected with the crowd through eye contact and hand gestures, offering incisive lyrics like “If you love somebody, anybody, there will always be someone else” (“Body”) and “Do I really need another habit like you?” (“Rapt”) in her hour-long, 18-song set.

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However, in the latter part of the night, O shifted out of her statuesque poses and added more movement and musicians, in addition to her two band members, “the breathy breathtaking” Holly Miranda and the “miraculous” Moses Sumney. (Sumney also shared a song of his own, called “San Fran.”)

After Sumney, a recording of Michael Jackson in an interview played, and Karen O returned to the stage sporting a silver sequined glove on her right hand, an homage to the King of Pop whom she wrote about in her song “King.” She added her own percussion for a song, using a paddle of jingle bells, but for her final number, she needed some help, so she brought up her own trifecta of indie rock musicians.

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Tambourine in hand, Karen O looked through the crowd for someone to play the instrument, and she singled out Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas, whose imprint Cult Records produced the album, to join for “Day Go By.” Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner -- “my musical soul mate,” as she calls him -- also joined on guitar, as he had for a few others as well.

For the encore, Karen O shared a repeat performance with Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, who sang “Moon Song” with her, as they did on the Oscars when she was nominated for the song, which was featured in the movie Her. Earlier, Karen O also sang “Hideaway,” a song she wrote for Spike Jonze’s 2009 film Where the Wild Things Are. “Moon Song” and “Hideaway” were the only songs featured not from the album.

While she did not speak much throughout the evening, Karen O did leave the crowd with some memorable parting words.

“I love you all,” she said. “Even the assholes.”

Set List:

“NYC Baby”
“Indian Summer “
“Other Side”
“So Far“
“Comes the Night”
“Sunset Sun”
“San Fran” (Moses Sumney)
“Native Korean Rock”
“Day Go By”

“Moon Song” (with Ezra Koenig)