Turning up

The thing about Keren Ann
By JON GARELICK  |  May 29, 2007

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AUTEUR: Keren Ann’s crucial production effects are precise rather than lush.

Seven times during our 20-minute telephone conversation, 34-year-old Israeli-French singer-songwriter Keren Ann Zeidel tells me some variation of “There are no rules.” Until I’m ready to strangle her — except that she’s on the other end of the line in a Tel Aviv studio, and besides, there are laws. “I know there are no rules!”, I want to scream. “Just tell me how you make your damned songs!”

But Keren Ann, who comes to the Somerville Theatre this Saturday, has a point: she’s difficult to classify. A folky songwriter with a flair for pure pop, she’s a whispery, soft-spoken singer who likes languid tempos and yet is best heard with the stereo turned loud. Her first two albums were all French — a language she learned at age 11 when her family moved to Paris. Made with the producer Benjamin Biolay, her debut, La biographie de Luka Philipsen, was laced with trip-hoppy beats and rhythmic noise. You can trace her back through the Gainsbourgs (Serge and Charlotte) to Françoise Hardy, but her songs are more folk than pop, and though she still likes production, she favors precision over lushness.

The operative word is “usually.” Since her French CDs, Keren Ann — who now lives in Paris and New York — has released three albums on venerable jazz label Blue Note’s contempo-jazz and “adult pop” Metro Blue imprint, and French has been supplanted by English. When I first started listening to Keren Ann (who goes only by her given names), I thought that what made her special was her composer/arranger’s sense of production. On her new Keren Ann (Metro Blue), the opener, “It’s All a Lie,” begins with low, reverby layers of bass and muffled cymbal and drum hits as she sings, “The lips of time, they kiss again/When I walk alone, into the night.” In the background, a slide guitar murmurs the blues. On the second chorus, a cloud of organ tone floats in, then a mellotron-sounding keyboard, and touches of vocal backing choir.

Keren Ann does that a lot on Keren Ann — layering effects one chorus at a time till you’ve got a bit of architecture (a word she likes a lot when we talk) completely different from what you started with in those skeletal first few bars. For a while I thought: take away the arrangements and you’ve got just another talented female singer-songwriter, no better or worse than a lot of them. But then I went back to her initial Metro Blue album, Not Going Anywhere, and listened to the first, title song: its Lennon/“Julia” opening acoustic-guitar figures, and the velvety tension and release of the chord changes. I’d just come from listening to a Feist song on my iPod — compared with Keren Ann, Feist sounded so American, or at least North American. Feist’s singing was beautiful, but in the American indie-folk style: raw, her expression coming in those pushes to the top of her register, the catches in her voice. Keren Ann’s voice on “Not Going Anywhere” was — as a friend had described Norah Jones’s pitch-perfect singing — like honey pouring in your ear. Keren Ann had Jones’s uncorrected vocal perfection and control, but with Feist’s songwriting funk, and a trip-hopper’s sense of the sound stage as a many-layered space. The songs and the singing stand on their own, but the shifting sonic landscape keeps drawing you in.

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