Here’s the good news: the casual music listener—those who own Norah Jones, Michael McDonald, and one of the Rod Stewart Songbook collections—will soon be buying Keren Ann’s latest release, Nolita, a recording rife with the influence of the Velvet Underground. If all goes well with Nolita‘s marketing campaign, and Blue Note should have the money to pull it off, the dinner-party-music buying public will be lured in, transfixed by the smooth sounds of Keren Ann’s breathy voice and the total competence of the music that backs it up. And this is OK. The aforementioned consumer would fare well to have an accomplished record such as Nolita in their collection. It is pretty, mesmerizing, and occasionally even compelling.
The bad news (and it’s not that bad) is that Nolita does not offer much to the serious music fan other than a few magical moments and the tag of “has future potential”. There’s no reason to take Nolita off once on, but when it’s over it largely dissipates from the mind. This is disappointing, as much of Keren Ann’s record is so close to passionate. It betrays the studious listener by seemingly focusing on competency and overall mood. Songs that should break away for a moment from their own rhythm, don’t. Keren Ann Zeidel’s vocals never stray from deliberate detachment. The first single, “Greatest You Can Find”, plays like manipulative label intervention. The song is easy and dull, the chorus stealing the bulk of the song; an updated version of Norah Jones’s “Come Away With Me”. “One Day Without You” follows the same blueprint (repetition, numbness), but manages to be slightly less slick. “Midi Dans le Salone de la Duchesse” sounds like a sound byte from a McDonald’s commercial. One can practically smell the fries.
To be fair, there are great moments. The opener, “Que N’Ai-Je?”, is provocative in its yearning. “Chelsea Burns” moves from top-notch Mazzy Star to a breathtaking country lament. The true stunner is the seven-minute title track. With few lyrics (“Think I’m gonna bury you”), the song lets the extended instrumental movement portray emotion, then ends with pained, frantic breathing. It’s the closest Ms. Zeidel comes to losing inhibition, and it is powerful.
With her unique voice and the subtle, professional musicianship, Keren Ann’s Nolita should be more with the sum of its parts. And, at times, it does resonate. Mostly, though, the mood drives the recording rather than the more effective method of believing in the songs enough to let them create an overall mood of their own. It’s evident that Keren Ann could someday release something as artistic and beautiful as Astrud Gilberto’s I Haven’t Got Anything Better to Do or Nico’s Chelsea Girl. For now, the positive needs to be noted again. Nolita may sell many copies to a specific audience, and that audience may very well be hearing the filtered strains of the Velvet Underground for the first time. This is important enough to stop and take notice. Keren Ann’s musical heart is in the right place, she just needs to uncover it a bit more.