Keren Ann rescues romance on latest album, a rich seduction of softness, sophistication and style.
"They know my voice, they know my name", Keren Ann sings in the opening track of her self-titled album, her fifth, but second on a US label. If you know her voice, she’s right, you do know her name. Unfortunately, I had just barely heard her name but not her voice until last February.
While in Paris last winter, a series of coincidences lead me to a small jazz club on Rue des Lombards called Sunset. I was there to see an excellent jazz band from New York, Third World Love. The ad said that there was a special guest, Keren Ann. Since it was my first day in Paris and I was totally jetlagged and overwhelmed, I didn’t bother researching, so I quite literally had no idea who Keren Ann was, besides a name. So ignorant was I that for the entire duration of TWL’s first two sets, I was unwittingly standing next to the woman herself. She got there a little late, this beautiful girl with an easy laugh and gentle confidence who stood quietly, occasionally whispering into the ears of friends, smiling and swaying with the music.
It’s such a stereotypical French thing, isn’t it? After learning she’s quite well known in France and has been a mainstay in the Paris music scene, I am sure that the majority of the audience was there to see her, they must have known it was her standing amongst the crowd, but no one reacted in the slightest bit. I, of course, was stunned when she made her way up to the stage, but the people around me didn’t seem to think a thing of it. I didn’t pay much attention at that point, however -- I was about to be even more stunned when she began to sing. As good as Third World Love is, I felt so lucky to be hearing this person singing; Keren Ann has the most beautifully emotive voice I have ever heard.
Her latest album captures the same effortless intimacy she brought to that show through the inherently calming tone of her voice. The world kind of melts away when she starts to sing, each song lulling you into a pleasantly dreamlike state, drifting into moments both beautiful and genuine, but vaguely unreal.
Keren Ann is a refreshing female presence in the songwriting world. Her creativity, maturity, skill, and depth culminate in songs that are breaths of fresh air, which aptly describes her sound as well. Her voice is captivating, light and soft. Her words float through your body and hit you in the heart.
Keren Ann’s music is feminine in the perfect way. She is smart, not frivolous; beautiful, not arrogant; vulnerable, not insecure; creative, not boring or pretentious. This is no guilty pleasure. It’s not a wasteful or indulgent escape into some fanciful lovesick stories or overly sexual and brash barrage of songs, both of which are too-often promoted and championed roles of women in the music industry. Instead, Keren Ann’s sophistication shines through the soft sounds that are soothing and seductive at once. A woman who sings "I promise only kisses, not love", she can break your heart or mend it with one shift of her voice.
Instantly pleasing and reassuring, "Lay Your Head Down" rescues romanticism and revels in it, a kind of perfect blend of jazz, folk and pop. The pulsing strings, harmonica groove and soft hum of violins create an embracing and sensual soundscape. Orchestral and vocal harmonies present in this song as well as "Between the Flatland and the Caspian Sea" wordlessly tug at your heart. The layered depth of "In Your Back" pulls you in, offering mesmerizing and hauntingly beautiful glimpses into human fragility, as do the wordless melodies that conclude "Liberty".
It’s amazing how much meaning she is able to place in each word, each phrase, and each key. There’s a complexity present throughout each of these tracks that goes beyond their stylish sound.
Keren Ann is a perfect example of the possibilities for music today, but also the narrow trap set by being almost too good. My biggest fear, and perhaps hers as well, is that she will be relegated to the standard background music at Starbucks or the like, rather than being acknowledged as an artist making music that warrants accolades and attention. When Keren Ann sings "God knows how much this town has promised me", there are mixed notes of expectation, threat, fear, and hope. While she may have left Europe to appeal to a broader North American audience, there is no trace of desperation or any sad attempt at appealing to a mass audience. It’s clear that Keren Ann makes music that she cares for; she has it in her bones. And after a listen, so will you.