It's difficult to tell how seriously Japanese pop star Kahimi Karie wants you to take her music. Her songs are irresistibly sweet, but, like candy corn, they can be almost too sugary. "I am a kitten!" she squeaks with a high, girlish whisper during one song on her first U.S. record, "Kahimi Karie" (1998). When she performs those words live, she often dons wee kitten ears atop her black mane.
But most things about Karie and her music seem cleverly plotted, and any ambiguity about her seriousness is probably her intention. On her records, the ultra petite chanteuse oversees the creation of delicious pop. Karie herself -- her feminine voice, her fashionable attire, her sex appeal -- is the primary element in her confections.
She also employs carefully selected collaborators to write songs for her. On her first record, Karie worked with wry Scottish tunesmith Momus and Japanese indie-pop hero Cornelius. Frequent touring partner Momus reappears on "K.K.K.K.K.," alongside members of French-German garage kitsch band Stereo Total, French singer-songwriter-arranger Katerine and Cornelius collaborator Hirohisa Horie, among others.
Overall, Karie's music fits comfortably alongside the bouncy, sample-happy sonic collages of Cornelius or Japanese club pop pioneers Towa Tei and Pizzicato Five. Individually, the song styles change with her collaborators. It's smarty-pants synth pop on the Momus songs, jangly indie-pop on the Horie songs and shambling garage pop on the Stereo Total songs. But no matter who its author is, each of Karie's tunes is primarily a showcase for her cute personality, and her pals stay out of the way.
Karie's songs vary from the sugar rush of the opening duet with Horie, "One Thousand 20th Century Chairs," to the sad showtune "What Is Blue?" to the singsong ode to shoes "Clip Clap." On each, her signature is her light-as-meringue voice, which despite its limitations is relatively malleable: She coos, she talks, she sings in French, she even raps (although she sounds more like Madonna on "Vogue" than a gangsta).
When she's describing her various outfits, right down to her underwear -- "It's warm against my hair" -- or even reinterpreting Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come" with chunky electronic beats, she's aware of how buoyant her voice is and the occasional irony of juxtaposing it against a more serious song. And of how fun it sounds. You may be dancing around your room to the effortless beats and airy melodies of "K.K.K.K.K.," but Kahimi Karie is getting the last giggle.