Keren Ann Zeidel was born in Caesaria, an Israeli town not far from Tel Aviv. Her father was a Russian Israeli, and her mother was Javanese/Dutch. Her early life was spent between Israel and the Netherlands, until Ziedel was 11 and the family finally settled in France.
The continental exoticism that such a peripatetic ancestry and upbringing might suggest permeates Not Going Anywhere, Keren Ann’s debut English language recording. She’s already a musical veteran, having released two prior French language albums, 2000’s La Biographie de Luka Philipsen and 2002’s La Disparition. She’s worked with some of the biggest names in the French music business, such as Benjamin Biolay and the 83-year-old Henri Salvador. She even co-wrote the bulk of Salvador’s 2000 comeback album, Room With a View. She was nominated for the Best New Female Artist award at the 2000 Victoires de la Musique program (which is the French equivalent of the Grammys), and was subsequently nominated for Best Female Artist two years in a row.
Such a vigorous CV may seem rather tiresome, but serves to reinforce the point that Keren Ann is no winsome naïf. This is her first exposure in the English speaking world, but on her “debut” album she comes across with the gravity and precision of a well-heeled veteran. Those coming across this CD without any warning will likely have no inkling that she is anything other than the mild-mannered, young, English-speaking folk prodigy she presents herself to be. She sings in perfectly mannered English, with barely a hint of a foreign accent on her tongue, and her songwriting betrays none of the trademark awkwardness native to the multilingual poet. But the overwhelming emotion of Not Going Anywhere is deep melancholy. Although her melodies may be sprightly, and her arrangements may be crisp, her voice floats in a perpetual dry haze of ascetic longing.
The album begins with the title track, which is also one of the disc’s more traditional folk arrangements. Over an intricate fingerpicking pattern with sparse strings in the background, Ziedel delivers a commandingly confident vocal. As with most of the album, her voice barely registers above a whisper, but it is a magisterial whisper, lovingly placed at the center of the album’s understated production.
“Polly” introduces an element of romantic longing, as seen through a prism of girlish romanticism. The production on this track takes a step outward from the minimal opener, with lush string arrangements and a melancholy muted trumpet taking center stage. “Road Bin” adds a surprisingly supple bluesy electric guitar, played by Eric Sauviat, to the mix. While Ziedel is hardly the first artist to mix blues and folk, this contribution is no less compelling for it.
“End of May” is a mournful elegy, sung with a children’s choir and inflected with a tastefully minor-key melody slightly evocative of traditional Eastern European or Jewish arrangements. “Sailor & Widow” is one of the album’s more upbeat tracks, a spry soft rock track featuring a coy, almost spoken vocal performance from Ziedel. The track’s energy is slightly ironic considering it is also about a mordantly doomed mid-life romance.
“Sit in the Sun” continues the nautical theme with an ocean pastoral. This is an almost unbearably sad song, with a tender vocal from Ziedel balanced by another mournful, reverb-drenched guitar passage from Sauviat. “Right Now & Right Here” is one of the few songs written from the perspective of Ziedel’s relative youth, as the song’s lovers find multiple metaphors for lovemaking. There’s even a return visit from the mellow lapping waves of “Sit in the Sun”. The children’s choir and delicate clavichord may be gilding the lily a bit much—we get that they like sex.
“Seventeen” could easily have been written by Rodgers and Hart, especially considering the uncharacteristically swelling string arrangements which emerge towards the song’s conclusion. “Spanish Songbird” is a gentle modified waltz with a wistful temperament—it’s even got a ukulele solo in it, which would seem to be pretty much the dictionary definition of wistful.
Of course, the album could never end on such an unstintingly positive note. “By the Cathedral” comes dangerously close to being a self-parody, but is saved from this fiendish fate by the unswerving sincerity of Ziedel’s voice. There’s not a hint of irony anywhere to be found. Of course, the album’s “Ending Song” is conclusive proof of the fact that Ziedel doesn’t have an ironic bone in her body, as she repeats the same melancholy verse over and over again:
“Funny day, no one is here, In the morning rain, there are no clouds, And I hear, follow me . . .”
Coming from Ziedel, it sounds like the saddest sentiment ever recorded in human history. The girl has an undeniable knack for conjuring up a mood of sweetest despondency, without succumbing to any of the callow pitfalls so common to self-possessed young songwriters. She has one of the most unbelievably affecting voices I have ever heard, and there is something almost vertiginously compelling about the way she says the most depressing things in the most adorable manner. There is an undeniable exoticism here, a kernel of Continental malaise wrapped in a cocoon of the familiar. Keren Ann casts a powerful spell, and if you hear her once, you are not likely to soon forget her.