Israeli-born, French-raised singer-songwriter Keren Ann learned to play guitar by listening to Joni Mitchell and Serge Gainsbourg albums, and her four records so far have been a pleasant synthesis of these two titan influences. Her self-titled fifth album, however, finds her moving beyond these spheres and achieving an expression of her own true voice. And the happy discovery is that that voice has a dark side. Like Chet Baker's "Deep in a Dream," there are undertones of quiet desperation, unpleasant revelations on human nature, and harsh realities creeping into an otherwise hazy, gauzy dreamland.
From the opening track ("It's All a Lie"), searing guitars cut her sensual, milky voice with ominous drone. Toward the song's end, the guitars fade back and give way to a chirpy, bubbling keyboard line and for a moment you think you've broken through the grey clouds then the keyboard hits the distortion pedal, the guitar spins into a twisted solo, and all is dark cumulonimbus again.
While there are a couple of upbeat-sounding songs on Keren Ann, ultimately the singer carves a niche for herself with desperate, hopeless pop dirges that give comfort in the form of the funereal hand on the shoulder that says, "It's over now. Here's a diversion but it's time to accept bleak reality." Almost makes you wish Francoise Hardy had a few songs this heavy, but it also makes you wish you could see the occasional beam of light through the thick dark haze of this record.
That's not to say that the music all composed and arranged by Keren Ann isn't often very beautiful. She acknowledges the lyrical darkness and tempers it, to a degree, with some pretty melodies and gorgeously soaring arrangements, including choir on a few songs. This contrast is part of what makes the record, part of what separates Keren Ann from many of her chanteuse contemporaries, and most of what makes this record very easy to listen to in the middle of a sleepless night.
Mike Ross writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.