Saturday, March 31, 2007

After Hours

Keren Ann, Keren Ann,
Metro Blue/Blue Note [5/8/07]

A moodier, more enigmatic enterprise than Nolita (2004),
her first self-titled effort witnesses Keren Ann branching out. As accomplished as her last album may have been, it was remarkably similar to Not Going
Anywhere (2003). The artist now takes a leap into the unknown.

This isn't to suggest that Keren Ann is unfocused, but rather that she's moving away from jazz, folk, and chanson-oriented forms into less predictable territory. Her remarkable voice remains essentially unchanged, but there are some neat sonic surprises, like buzzing drums and echo effects. That said, she does give the impression of an amplified Billie Holiday on "It Ain't No Crime," which sounds like the theme to a future David Lynch film.

The record, as a whole, isn't as strange as my description suggests, just louder and less tradition-minded than before. I don't think old fans will be disappointed, since it's more of a stylistic shift than a radical departure. If anything, I predict it'll increase her fanbase.

For those who aren't familiar, Keren Ann Ziedel hails from France. The singer/songwriter released two French-language recordings, La Biographie de Luka Philipsen (2000) and La Disparition (2002), before she began attracting attention Stateside, resulting in a domestic record contract. Like Not Going Anywhere, Keren Ann is in English (Nolita features four numbers in French).

For the sake of comparison, I revisited her French recordings. In the aftermath, she's really learned to maximize her vocal potential. Too often on La Disparition ("The Disappearance"), Keren Ann sings at the top of her range. She never loses pitch, but there's a sense she's trying to be something she's not...or hiding from who she is. The effect is vulnerable and na├»ve—not necessarily negative qualities, but it feels like she's selling herself short. She's since down-shifted an octave, resulting in a smoother, more solid sound, while remaining as understated as ever.

On the new record, Keren
Ann projects a greater
degree of confidence in herself, not just as a musician, but as a person. Her first
three were collaborations
with arranger/composer Benjamin Biolay, but she's been on her own since Nolita.

Biolay, who has since settled down with actress Chiara Mastroianni, continues to live and work in France (he and Keren Ann were once an item), but she has moved on. Biolay's music remains resolutely French—and I'm not complaining—while
Keren Ann's is neither wholly French nor American. Similarly,
her cultural roots are Dutch, Russian, Israeli, and Indonesian.
She isn't obviously drawing from those cultures, but I suspect they've helped to make what she does so hard to classify.

Not Going Anywhere, which features some of her most adventurous songwriting, remains my favorite, but Keren Ann represents her strongest vocal work, while successfully shaking up a formula that might otherwise have started to grow stale. I've played it three times now, and the more I listen, the more I like it—always a good sign. It's easily one of the best of the year.

Endnote: Keren Ann has made no secret of her affection for the Velvet Underground and Tom Waits, and album number five is where those influences really come into play. The quasi-instrumental "Caspian" is co-written by Iceland's Bardi Johannsson (Bang Gang), with whom she collaborated as Lady & Bird. The links above will take you to my AMG and Amazon reviews. I've also written about her for Tablet. Keren Ann plays Seattle's Triple Door on 6/13. For more information, please see her official site. Images from her MySpace Page and the unnoficial Keren Ann site.


Anonymous said...

really agree with u on Keren Ann's new album!
-- a comment from China..

kathy fennessy said...

Thanks so much for your comment, Shel. Cheers from Seattle!