music, The Canon

The Canon: Kahimi Karie – I am a kitten

Inspired in no small part by The AV Club’s dearly departed “The New Cult Canon” feature, our newest feature at Memories of Shibuya aims to catalogue the releases that formed the core of what Shibuya-kei meant, and set the stage for what it would become in the future. These may not necessarily be the “best” selections when viewed purely on musical merits, but they are the ones that are most essential to Shibuya-kei as a genre. So, without further ado, Kahimi Karie’s 1995 Crue-l EP I am a kitten: Kahimi Karie sings Momus in Paris.

The initial reaction many people have to Kahimi Karie is one of outright disgust. Her breathy, high-pitched vocals inevitably make her music come off as distressingly pedophilic to many listeners, and the openly sexual subject matter of her lyrics (written, invariably, by men) only aggravates this perception. A now-deleted (but helpfully archived) Pitchfork review of her self-titled Minty Fresh compilation described her voice as “like an eight-year-old call girl trying to pick up a trick,” and as unfortunate as that metaphor may be, it isn’t exactly as if one could deny the connection between Karie’s music and the Lolita complex. The Nabokov book’s title appears in her discography twice – first when she covered Serge Gainsbourg’s “Lolita Go Home,” and again with the Momus-penned “Lolitapop Dollhouse” – and although the latter was intended as a statement of rebellion against the idea of being a Lolita, it still acknowledges that she did, indeed, get her start rather openly playing one.

On her first EP, 1994’s Girly, Karie was presented by then-boyfriend Keigo “Cornelius” Oyamada as something like the France Gall to his Serge Gainsbourg. Although she was actually just shy of a year older than him, she played the role of the childlike innocent very well, perhaps too well in the eyes of some. On “Still Be Your Girl” (written by Oyamada) she portrayed a young girl of no small amount of naiveté, singing “I’m watching a war on TV news / they say that this world will be over soon / but I always win the TV games” early on, later vowing eternal love to the listener as “our rainbow is the only truth.” That song is mild, however, compared to what came before it – album opener “Candyman,” also written by Oyamada, has the faux nymphet complaining about how everybody says the object of her affections is “too old for [her],” but nevertheless she wishes to marry him in an “ice-cream castle.” Although the predatory aspect of the aforementioned Gainsbourg/Gall relationship was entirely absent behind the scenes, as they were a proper couple rather than a married man in his late 30s and an apparently quite naive teenager, Girly‘s two English-language originals still make the album a rather tough pill for the average listener to swallow (made no better by the fact that one of the two foreign-language cover songs was Gainsbourg’s own “Lolita Go Home”).

After Girly, however, Karie was paired up with a songwriter whose lyrical ambition far outstripped Oyamada’s. While Cornelius may have been satisfied with Gainsbourg allusions and imagining his girlfriend as something akin to an underaged anime sexpot made flesh (I don’t judge, everyone has their kinks), her partnership with Scottish-born songwriter Nick “Momus” Currie led to the birth of a deeper, and far more interesting, persona. Recorded in Paris around New Year’s on the border of 1994 and 1995, the I am a kitten EP was both Karie’s first album of originals and, to date, one of only two Karie albums made as a collaboration with a single songwriter (the other, 2010’s It’s Here, was written entirely by Jim O’Rourke). She still had the breathy, high-pitched voice that makes people so uncomfortable, but for the first time she was making music with actual depth to go along with it. I am a kitten is a Kahimi Karie album you don’t have to be a pervert to like (although it helps).

I am a kitten is also unique in its production; the entire affair most closely resembles one of John Peel’s famous “Peel Sessions,” sitting comfortably in that halfway point between a “live” recording and a “studio” one. While Karie’s other albums are far more traditionally studio-based efforts, and thus technically superior from a hi-fi enthusiast’s perspective, the stripped-down aesthetic of I am a kitten is ultimately an asset – the production reflects the intimacy of the singer/songwriter collaboration. While Karie’s soft voice always seems on the verge of being swallowed by the murky depths of the incredibly muddy lo-fi mix, I can’t help but prefer the organic nature of I am a kitten over her more technically “well-mixed” material. Obvious studio creations like later single “Le Roi Soleil” represent massive gains in definition and clarity, but the feelings of spontaneity and intimacy are discarded entirely. It’s hardly a coincidence that the album is subtitled “Kahimi Karie sings Momus in Paris” and the album’s packaging depicts the Paris studio in a number of slides in place of a booklet; that studio is as essential to I am a kitten as any of its players.

The tidy suite of 5 songs – “I am a kitten,” “Vogue Bambini,” “Giapponese a Roma,” “Nikon 2” and “The Poisoners” (misspelled “The Poisners” on the album’s packaging) – found Karie taking a hard left turn from Girly, her only song as a bright-eyed naif played for pitch-black humour and pathos simultaneously. That particular song, “Vogue Bambini,” has Karie’s character “hoping that [her] tummy will just suddenly go fat” as she lives out an apparently sexless relationship with “her pop-star boyfriend,” fantasizing about stealing babies from their cribs as she reads Vogue Bambini, the child-focused equivalent to fashion magazine Vogue. A far cry from the one-dimensional Karie on Girly (the title of that EP could very easily be taken to be a one-word summary of its contents), “Vogue Bambini” has her portraying a character who is at once sympathetic and repulsive, tragic and comic, worldly and ignorant. Doesn’t hurt that the song’s upbeat acoustic guitar and comical synthesizer makes it every bit as fun as Oyamada’s arrangements on Girly were, either – although, as Momus’s discography has proven time and time again, he does have a talent for redeeming some incredibly dire compositions through sheer lyrical finesse.

Although less heavy on sampling than some of her other material, and lacking any cover songs (a rarity in her ’90s output), I am a kitten is unmistakably Shibuya-kei from the word go. The homages to 1960s Europe are never more blatant than on the Italian-language “Giapponese a Roma,” which opens with a sample from a Federico Fellini film and goes on to run through a laundry list of Italian cultural icons. She rides a Vespa through the Via del Corso, drinks cappucino in the Villa Borghese, and contrasts the positives and negatives of Italy’s historical legacy; “modernista, futurista / Il Duce e fascista.” It’s at once both a loving tribute to the Old World that Karie and Momus are both obviously enamored with, and the musical equivalent of a tacky tourist trap – which could easily be said of all Shibuya-kei.

As I am a kitten was a Crue-l Records release, the main musical reference point is the él Records discography – as the British cult label (which Momus himself released his debut LP, Circus Maximus, on in 1986) was the obvious template for Crue-l. Karie’s first single, “Mike Alway’s Diary” (written by Oyamada and assisted by the “Crue-l Grand Orchestra”), was even named after él founder Mike Alway, and luckily for Karie the él format was a good one to follow. It could easily be argued that, in its sui generis mixture of jazz, francophone pop, psychedelia, glam-rock, and whatever else happened to seem like a good idea at the time, él made the template not just for Crue-l, but for Shibuya-kei overall. The label certainly wasn’t the only source of inspiration – to give él too much credit would only be doing a disservice to the massive hip-hop influence on Shibuya-kei, to say nothing of the Postcard Records sound that was just as vital as any of the él artists’ – but the eclectic genre-blending and obsession with 1960s European obscurities had their most obvious predecessors on él. Not that you can find any hints of The Monochrome Set’s new wave or the brash, confrontational style of Shock Headed Peters on I am a kitten, of course; Momus amusingly remarked that, when writing songs for Karie, he found himself thinking “where would this song go if it were by the Would-be-Goods?”

Although Karie would continue to make music for another decade and a half before going into semi-retirement (she resurfaced in 2014 to contribute guest vocals to a song on Buffalo Daughter’s Konjac-tion, but recent appearances are few and far between), she would never make another album as solid as I am a kitten. Maybe due to how its short length allowed it to retain a musical focus better than the releases that followed, maybe because of the intimacy of the recording, maybe because it was her first collaboration with Momus and lightning only struck once. Future albums would find her sound branching off from the él Records template, later recordings even finding her dipping her toes into the “Japanoise” style that Shibuya-kei once stood diametrically opposite to, but never did she find anything that worked quite as well as this tidy little quintet of Momus-penned numbers. She outgrew the role of baby-voiced sex kitten, and, for a glorious period that began with I am a kitten and ended with her move to Victor Records in 2003, she found something much more interesting – only to lose it with the albums that followed the move.

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