Consider Keren Ann’s second tune, “Lay Your Head Down.” It starts with a Velvet Underground guitar vamp and handclaps, and even a Lou Reed–like talking-blues delivery: “It seems like every story told about us is meant to be.” The Lou blues are in that flat “seems.” It anticipates the next line: “Where you fly your wings of gold all the way back home to me.” And then she shifts into a high-register swoop on the melodic chorus with some chugging cello: “But what I’m thinking of/Just this time, why don’t you/Lay your head down in my arms. In my arms.” That melody comes home in a way Lou’s never would, the contrast a heart tugger. By the end, there’s been a Lou-like bent-guitar solo, blues harp, the sampled handclaps doubling their rhythm, and a final repetition of the refrain as a backing chorus sings layered long and short tones of “buh-buh-buh-buh.”
The production on the three Metro Blue albums starting in 2003 is all Keren Ann’s. She’s her own Serge Gainsbourg, her own auteur. She’s dismissive of “minimalistic guitar and vocal records . . . it’s just not enough. I love production and I like sound, and if I want to listen to singer-songwriters with just guitar and vocals, I have Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen — I don’t have to listen to young people from today.” Instead, she says, her recreational listening of contemporaries is mostly of her New York friends Joseph Arthur and Dayna Kurtz, because “I like their universe and their whole style. They have their own sound and their own thing, and that’s what interests me.”
At times, she does go for full-on lushness. “Right Now & Right Here,” from Not Going Anywhere, swells with French horns, a full string section, a harpsichord, and a children’s chorus humming the sing-songy melody. The production on Keren Ann is full and minimalist at the same time — a couple of string players, a trumpet, bass, drums, various keyboards, plenty of guitars deployed in calibrated entrances and exits. “It Ain’t No Crime” stomps a slow, four-square beat and dirty, scraping blues guitar as she sings: “Don’t say nothin’/I’ll speak for two/I’ll do the lying/You just walk through/It ain’t no crime/That’s what we do/Ain’t that what we do.” She sings “do” like Billie Holiday, with a delayed beat, blue-note inflection, and pursed-lip articulation: “doo.”
“Yeah it was fun,” she tells me. “I thought that it would be nice to have a song where Queens of the Stone Age have a feature with Billie Holiday, I kind of wanted to hear that. I didn’t think I was able to do that, but it was fun trying, and I like the sound of it, so I left it.” It reads like a love song to another musician, about writing a love song: “Baby, I won’t trade your million-dollar smile/Won’t let them take your most particular style/But I’ll give ’em something to remember you by.” Although Keren Ann told me she doesn’t know Queens of the Stone Age personally, she used Joe Barresi, who’s worked with them, to mix the album.