The day I played La Disparition, Keren Ann’s angelic 2002 collaboration with Benjamin Biolay, to my work colleagues, they treated it with the usual Anglo Saxon scorn of all things European. “We can’t understand a word she’s singing”, they chimed in unison whilst usurping the player with the latest 50 Cent, or somesuch. The more intelligible being…?
So, my initial reaction to Nolita, upon finding half of it sung in English, was one of disappointment, our intimacy compromised. How could I love her now? The opening track Que N’Ai-Je (What Don’t I Have?) with itsJobim/Gilberto infectiousness soon had me dewy eyed and lost in reverie, and whilst Greatest You Can find, the first English language track on the album came across a little Morcheeba-lite, and my doubts once more began to surface.
Chelsea Burns however is all Trinity Sessions meets Leonard Cohen, lo-fi and lovely. Complemented by violin, mandolin and harmonica, Keren Ann has absorbed little pieces of Americana and branded the juxtaposition as her own. Indeed although the songs were originally pre-recorded in Paris, she took them to a rented loft in Lower Manhattan, set up studio, and amongst a handful of home comforts, gave us Nolita, the title taken from the name of that neighbourhood. “I had to get back to New York to fully record the songs”, she says. “I had to get back to the atmosphere”.
And the atmosphere is always there, whatever the style of the track, and there are a number of styles on the album. La Forme Et Le Fond with its melodically descending bass to the fore and sparse two word phrasing that drops into a whispering bridge, has the essence of Mercury Rev meets Stina Nordenstam, whilst Midi Dans Le Salon De La Duchesse, which is more traditionally French, also strangely has something of The Kinks about it in its upbeat style. Roses and Hips, contrarily, wears dungarees and chews tobacco, with its drunken guitar hook, harmonica and Rikki Lee Jones inflections.
But it is the slower, more introspective songs where Keren Ann really pulls the heart strings. The title and stand out track, Nolita, a song about suffocation and burial with its outtro loop of breathlessness conveys both fear and fixation, intoxicating, haunting. The musicianship and use of instruments, is always considered and never over-bearing, a perfect platform for the fragile melancholia of the vocal delivery. New York has introduced new acquaintances, the most obvious being jazz trumpeter Avishai Cohen’s tender solo on L’Onde Amere (Bitter Wave).
So whilst Nolita is an album that wears its influences on its sleeve, it is the intense tenderness of Keren Ann’s voice that pulls all the disparate strands together and makes this album anything but a copy of her favourite record collection. And as for the singing in English? The lyrics are heartfelt, never cheap nor lost in translation – even my colleagues are listening. Oceans have been crossed and bridges built for all of us. A thing of rare beauty.