- The Washington Times - Monday, May 7, 2007

Keren Ann

Keren Ann

Blue Note

The singer-songwriter Keren Ann Zeidel was born in Tel Aviv to Israeli-Dutch parents, and grew up in Paris, where she still keeps a flat. (She also spends time in New York and Israel.) Starting in 2000, she released two albums in France (recorded with producer Benjamin Biolay), but it wasn’t until her first English-language album, the folky, jazz-tinged “Not Going Anywhere” (2003), that she made her first impression on American audiences.

But what a first impression. To connoisseurs of a certain kind of wistful sadness, “Not Going Anywhere” was a quiet revelation. Exhibiting a genuinely poetic economy, Miss Zeidel’s deceptively understated compositions proved to be marvels of simplicity and structural integrity. On self-contained little gems like “By the Cathedral” and “Not Going Anywhere,” lyrics, melody, chords and singing worked together in seamless unity to evoke recurrent themes of surrender, loss, loneliness and dislocation. Building on that foundation, the dark and smoldering follow-up “Nolita” saw the singer adding just enough of a lurid neon glow to her arrangements (electric guitar drones, feedback and arpeggios) to illuminate the vicious urban undertow running through her music — something that was only hinted at on the previous album. Now, with “Keren Ann,” her self-produced, eponymous new CD, Miss Zeidel has taken the logical next step, evincing a heightened interest (and perhaps a greater comfort) in the recording studio itself, using instrumental textures to create unsettling, dreamlike soundscapes.

Aesthetically, “Keren Ann” is all about the undertow. Eclectically stretching the songs like so much sonic taffy, she calls upon skronky guitar, synthesizers, strings, hand claps, horns, harmonica and heavenly choirs to both complement and subvert their basic structures.

“It’s All a Lie,” with its wispy reverb and grimy guitar chords, sets the tone. You wait for the elements to coalesce and the song to properly kick in, but instead the opposite happens — as the song progresses it gradually falls apart, disintegrating further into noise and finally silence, as if all the pretty singing in the world could not contain the forces of entropy. Similarly, the deadpan menace of the Weimar nightclub stomp, “It Ain’t No Crime,” features intentionally distorted vocals and jagged, nervous-breakdown guitars that color way outside the lines.

But Miss Zeidel still knows how to produce moments of shudder-inducing beauty, too. The stately chamber-pop of “In Your Back” teeters between bitterness and devotion toward a lost lover, while the otherworldly “Where No Endings End” is a virtual waltz of the damned, layering strings and echo-laden guitar lines on top of a spare acoustic guitar figure. The epic “Liberty” bobs gently along on a moonlight-rippled ocean of piano, before ascending skyward in the embrace of a celestial choir.

“Liberty” flows directly into the album’s closer, “Between the Flatland and the Caspian Sea,” presumably a paean to her romantic partner, an Israeli pilot. A bubble-gummy re-creation of an early-‘70s Top-40 ambience somewhere between Lee Hazelwood and Helen Reddy that dissolves in an extended psychedelic fadeout, this may be the purest pop song Miss Zeidel has written.

The crucial difference between “Keren Ann” and attempts by less-focused artists to expand their palette of recording techniques is that Miss Zeidel never allows the seductive power of sonic possibilities to lure her away from serving the integrity of her songs. In a world where tails seem to be wagging dogs everywhere you look, that’s quite an achievement.

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