Keren Ann is working with a beguiling instrument: a flat and airy voice that wafts through her songs. It’s a limitation but also a signature, and Keren Ann threads her dreamy sound across the ten songs of 101 with confidence and cunning.
Keren Ann Zeidel grew up in Israel, Holland, and Paris, and her music contains traces of European dance pop, Serge Gainesbourg, Jewish folk melodies, Suzanne Vega, and floating psychedelia. She’s been recording for over a decade, mostly in French for a while, but recently in English while splitting her time between Europe and the US. Her last four releases have come out on Blue Note, but her music is neither vocal jazz nor Norah Jones-style adult pop. Rather, it is a sly and smart kind of indie-pop.
Given a decent chance, it will suck you in.
101 has a gentleness about it that suggests “folk music”, but most of the collection is both more modern and more layered than any folk. A typically charming song, for example, is “All the Beautiful Girls”, which starts with finger-picked acoustic guitars, gentle piano, and drums whispered by brush strokes. With lyrics that refer to girls who “want to stay late / And finish the wine in your luxury basement / ... and like debate Pollock and Kline, Ginsberg and Corso” you might feel comfortably in a ‘60s folk bag. But you would be wrong. The music soon enough brings in some kind of low brass and then a small string section that slowly dominates the arrangement, giving it remarkable heft. And the lyrics, rather than being nostalgic, tell a story about a distant marriage. What seems at first merely pretty is substantially more interesting.
Several tunes on 101 complicate Keren Ann’s sound with contemporary pop strategies. “My Name Is Trouble” is set atop a repetitive synth-bass and a drum loop. A rippling harpichord sound defines the verse and chorus, with an odd high chirping sound at the edges of what you can hear. About a woman more than happily to tell you what “a mess” she is, the tune is a strange amalgam of spare parts, but it’s also a real earworm. “Blood on My Hands” also uses modern percussion sounds, but it combines them with an old-timey piano part and a traditional melody. The lyrics describe a scene in which the singer goes berserk shooting up a music hall of people (which caused Rob Hoerburger to dub this album “Gansta Folk” in the New York Times), but the next thing you know the strings are back in playing something dripping with Viennese schmaltz. To me, this isn’t “gansta”, it’s clever postmodern play—a jumbled put-on of a sort. Fun more than scary.
The better part of 101, however, works because of strong melody rather than schtick. “She Won’t Trade It For Nothing” has a nice hooky guitar lick up front, followed by a splendid minor melody that contains an infectious upward line on the chorus. The sounds, vocal and instrumental, float in chilly layers that are warmed by the eternal virtue of melody. “Strange Weather” is a slow-building orchestral dirge, but the melody—sung with utter simplicity—keeps you attentive. “You Were on Fire” is the tune that sounds so much like Suzanne Vega at first, but the line of the melody bends and stretches in unexpected directions.
Many of these tunes might have been given more conventional arrangements or readings. But 101 consistently finds ways to steer itself away from the 1970s-style singer-songwriter bag that it might have fallen into. In the end, the relevant comparisons are not to Vega and Joni Mitchell but rather to bands such as the Flaming Lips and Wilco, which have found ways to make pop music more inventive through extravagantly interesting production and arrangement. Keren Ann’s voice, much flatter than a typical rock singer’s, works well as the “straight man” played against these soundscapes.
The most daring thing on 101 is the title track, which sets up an eerie bed of percussion and arpeggiation, over which Keren Ann speaks a long list of items (“101 floors, 100 days ‘til…, 94 pages, 93 million miles away,..., 88 constellations”, etc.). It is, like so much of the record, hypnotic and utterly cool. But this can also mean that the whole record risks being artistically and emotionally flat and monotonous. Some listeners are likely to find the singer’s whispery lack of affect a shimmering snooze. And with so many of the arrangement seeming gauzy rather than intriguingly impressionistic, well… those listeners may have a point.
Fair enough. But in the pop landscape of 2011, 101 is both fresh and timely. Keren Ann doesn’t sing with bombastic technique—she is neither souful Christina Aguilera nor jazzy-fleet Esperanza Spalding. She gives you less as a singer but considerably more as an artist crafting a listening experience. Each of the songs is a short film: with an atmosphere and a story and a sense of drama. That makes her an artist to whom attention must be paid.