The cello is not an instrument often associated with pop music, outside of the occasional lush arrangements found on ambitious rock records. Jorane plays the cello, however, and not only does she play it but she plays it exceedingly well. Listening to The You and the Now, I’m more than a little surprised no one has lit upon the juxtaposition before now: the combination of earthy, supple cello and ethereal female soprano is inspired and effective.
Jorane — nee Joanne Pelletier — is French-Canadian, and the exotic nature of her voice and instrument are integral to the appeal of her music. She’s built a sizeable celebrity in the French-speaking world on the strength of four previous releases, but stands poised to conquer the English speaking world — as well as the rest of continental Europe — with this, her first English-language release.
Based on the quality of this release, Jorane could very well experience the same kind of cosmopolitan crossover appeal that Norah Jones has recently experienced (the same in kind, if not in magnitude). While Norah Jones is ostensibly jazz, Jorane’s cello implies a classically-informed, chamber-music atmosphere quite rare in modern pop. Her voice is simultaneously strong and subtle, a beguiling combination in a market that places a premium on willowy, untutored ingenues. Surprisingly, her muscular and competent style came about not through a childhood spent in conservatory but as the result of a youth spent in a peripatetic and mostly unschooled carom from instrument to instrument, from piano to the guitar to the cello, which she only first encountered at age 19.
If Jorane’s skill and presence mark her as preternaturally gifted, her first English recordings prove that she also has an ear for foreign vernacular. Often, in an attempt to court American success, otherwise nimble foreign-born artists can become remarkably club-footed in English (Shakira, an otherwise talented vocalist, is a great example of this awkward phenomenon). Thankfully, while Jorane’s accent is a constant reminder of her nationality, her lyrics are refreshingly simple and emotive, enough so to remain appealing despite the occasional lapses into junior-high poetry subject matter (“Blue Planet”, “Am I the Sky”).
There’s a lot to like here in the form of Jorane’s indefatigably sensuous vocals and expressive cello work, but at 14 songs the multiple ballads become unfortunately turgid, threatening to drown her notable virtues. Certainly, songs like “Film III” and “Come Back Again” should play well in the theoretical coffee house setting, but her real strengths come to the fore on more aggressive fare like the album-opening “Stay” and “The Cave”. With such a subtle and dark instrument at her disposal, it is easy for less riotous arrangements to fade into generic dirges. Plus, the unorthodox nature of her songwriting makes it easy to fall into tepid New Age clichés that regrettably (at least for these ears) bring to mind folks like Loreena McKennit and Enya.
At her best, Jorane evokes a less eccentric Kate Bush, but while her charms are myriad her songwriting often falls prey to more mundane instincts. When she’s out on a limb, as on her oddball but still interesting cover of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”, her prodigious talent infuses the music with an urgency and a dynamism which she would do well to cultivate. However, there is no surfeit of talent which will overcome soggy songwriting.