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Keren Ann (2007)

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Keren Ann

Keren Ann Zeidel's international pedigree -- born in Tel Aviv, raised in Paris, now splits her time between there and New York -- served her well on her first four albums, but this fifth, sung entirely in English, is her most worldly yet. Chalk that up, one would suppose, to a busy touring life and a growing confidence to experiment both with identity and available musical tools. By self-titling the album, Keren Ann is by default making a statement that this is her statement. That means that the recording would have to be not only extra-special good but representative of who she thinks she is at the moment it is unleashed on an ever-growing audience. And it is that good: it's the singer/songwriter's most far-reaching, defining album yet. While her trademark wisp of a voice still dominates most of the album's real estate, it meets up here with a different, more aggressive and courageous Keren Ann as well: on "It Ain't No Crime," with its heavy blues thump and screaming distorted guitar, she sings in a compressed, insistent voice, "There are no victims/There is no truth/We take their money/They take our youth," something so surprisingly shivery the Keren Ann of albums one through four would never have dared go there. The record, at times, is a circus of sounds, an ornate hodgepodge of moody keyboards and skronky guitars, wordless angel chorales, ambient electronics, airy woodwinds and overcharged fuzzboxes. On the album's minimal, Velvets-ish opener, "It's All a Lie," a slow build sucks in droning bass and distant sonic chaos beneath Keren Ann's typically languid vocal. She barely rises above Cowboy Junkies lethargy, and the song never picks up the pace from there but, drenched in reverb, a climax sneaks up, the song finally sputtering around directionless like a balloon whose air has been let out. On "The Harder Ships of the World," over lightly plucked guitar, she manages to squeeze every bit of expression out of an almost non-existent range of dynamics, barely rising above a whisper but drenching every word in raw emotion. More so than before, perhaps, Keren Ann seems to be enjoying herself, directing her music less self-consciously than before and asserting her eagerness to shift moods and stretch the sonic easel on which she builds. Her enunciation, no doubt because of her geographic rootlessness, isn't always as clear as it could be, but that indistinctiveness ultimately serves to add an even larger air of mystery to the already mysterious. The six-minute tour de force "Liberty" spends its last couple of minutes dishing out a repetitive piano tinkle, disembodied vocal chorus and aimless, backwards looped instruments -- all of that vies for attention but the singer pays it no mind as she goes about her business. On "Lay Your Head Down," polyrhythmic handclaps and surfy guitar precede a half-spoken intro, which suddenly morphs into utter prettiness. Keren Ann never really says more than "Why don't you lay your head down in my arms?," allowing the various strings, harmonica and layered vocals to amend her thoughts. She doesn't need to: she's said all she has to say. Keren Ann fills all of the air and space here but the music never feels crowded and never loses its way. Only an artist who has run head-on into self-discovery can get away with that. ~ Jeff Tamarkin