First off, no one in this band is named Karen. Yes, there’s a woman singer, but her name is Achiko. Why did the band name use a single first name? I don’t know. And yet, the name kind of fits.
KAREN consists of ART-SCHOOL guitarists Kinoshita Riki and Todaka Masafumi, ex-downy rhythm section of bassist Nakamata Kazuhiro and drummer Akiyama Takahiko, plus Achiko. It’s something of an indie supergroup that, not surprisingly, sounds nothing like the bands from which the members came.
A bit of ART-SCHOOL’s emo bluster can be heard in the guitar work, but it’s held in check by a more pop sound. The syncopated madness of downy, however, is nowhere to be found, although Akiyama and Nakamata do a fine job of playing around the beat.
Rather, KAREN is what happens when a ’90s indie band gets transported to the late ’80s. If the band’s debut album MAGGOT IN TEARS is any indication, the arm of Johnny Marr stretches long yet again.
KAREN has a warm, intimate sound, very much indebted to bands that flourished in the wake of the Smiths and the Cure. "Birds and Train" could have been an outtake by the Sundays. The verses of "COMA (Sunday)" just need a big heap of reverb to cross into Cocteau Twins territory.
Achiko’s rich voice lends a more torch singer quality to the songs, as if Alison Moyet learned how to speak Japanese. The addition of saxophone on "Flapper" reminds me of … Nothing Like the Sun-era Sting, especially the extended solos that conclude the track, and the African rhythms of "Library" recall Paul Simon’s excursion to South Africa on Graceland.
Traces of ART-SCHOOL can be found on "Lorraine" and "Marine", but for the most part, KAREN opts to meld distant past with recent past.
MAGGOT IN TEARS is not an album that hits listeners over the head. It takes a soft sell approach, coming across unassuming till many listens later, it takes hold. In short, it’s an album that doesn’t wear out.