Tuesday, December 14, 2004


In a new New Yorker article, there's a review of an album that's currently available only in Europe, with a US release date set for next spring. Initially, I thought that was slightly rude: it seems to be rubbing in the fact that The Music Critic got to fly to France for a listening party (and back in November at that) and got invited up to the artist's flat in Monmarte to see her etchings, while you, the common people, get to wait another four months to hear the CD.

A minute later, I realized that the common people who read the New Yorker can apparently afford to spend $200 on a hat made from the fur of an entire family of yaks, so they can probably figure out how to import a CD from France. I imagine that, as I write, any number of tiny Gallic packets are winging their way towards the unsuspecting hands of Jamaican nannies throughout New York City. (It looks like folks could save their nannies some trouble by just running down to, predictably enough, Les Autres Musiques.)

I often wonder about the true meaning behind music reviews that appear in the New Yorker. I'm sure that the writers have a good idea of who they're working for, so I'm never sure whether I should take their opinions straight, or read them as being cynically directed towards a certain reader. It seems entirely possible that, in this case, the reviewer is making fun of his audience, but regardless, it seems like a safe bet that, when it does get released in the US, Keren Ann's Nolita CD is going to take up permanent residence in every bookstore, every coffee shop, every semi-upscale brunch spot, and every apartment in New York where someone is about to offer a friendly backrub following an informal date at the MOMA.

I thought it was interesting that the reviewer, referring to Keren's previous album, said, "I reached for it over and over, as if it were a glass of water." It's one of a number of possibly backhanded compliments. The things I know about water (as does, I assume, the reviewer):

1. It's judged not for any positive attributes, but rather by its lack of defects
2. It's thought best, by those who care, if it comes from France

On the Glass Of Water scale, Nolita succeeds beautifully. Keren
Ann's vocals hit an exceedingly tasteful spot somewhere between Claudine Longet's whisper and Hope Sandoval's heroin hangover, arriving at a point where her voice lacks audibility and expression in equal parts. Add the French-ish accent, and you get distant, sexy, and foreign, and I can't imagine what could be more appealing to a certain kind of male reader, other than "inaccessible." And, by running the review so far in advance, that base is covered as well. With influences such as The Velvet Underground (the third album only), The Cowbow Junkies, and any number of the late Serge Gainsbourg's ex-girlfriends, it's pretty obvious that this is a shot that's not going to miss its target.

Another interesting bit from the review: the writer starts to tell us about Keren's lyrics and quotes the line, "This is why I always wonder / I’m a pond full of regrets / I always try to not remember rather than forget." Suddenly realizing that even New Yorker readers won't buy that as profound, he adds, "It doesn’t read well on the page" and goes on to talk about her voice's lack of affect and how it increases the impact of the words. And so we arrive in a beautiful, floaty space (equal parts caffeine, wine, and money) where "je ne sais quois" lyrics, sung with the same lack of care that went into writing them, have gathered an intense power of indiscriminate suggestion. It's a space that some of us may remember from the last time we saw an advertisement for Eternity Parfum: romantic, timeless, classic.

There's an empty transcendence to this record that's inspiring. It takes its cues from any number of meaningful, bohemian moments from the 60's, though in this version, the transvestites and drug addicts were all gentrified out of the Chelsea hotel back in the fifties, leaving it populated with shy, thoughtful, pretty women of indeterminate European origin, waiting pensively for that fateful day when Lou and Andy stumble upon through the front door (following brunch, espresso, and a trip to the flea market).

There isn't a single note, melody, or arrangement on Nolita that isn't as seductive and honest as the distressed finish on the chair you just finished roughing up with steel wool, per Martha. Strings caress soft acoustic guitar, somber horns remind us that life is finite, and playful banjos (or are they ukeleles) cry out "how wonderful to be alive and plinking!" I have the album on now, in the background, on a cold day that's equal parts fall and winter. It makes me want to write a letter to my old college girlfriend, to curl up with a cup of cocoa and a copy of Bonjour Tristesse, and to check to see if the Film Forum has Bande A Part playing anytime soon. I'm looking for my scarf, realizing I don't have one, thinking of buying a scarf, and thinking about taking a walk through Prospect Park. When I play Nolita in public, smart looking twenty-somethings with glasses will reflexively tell me "it's really nice" as they glance up from their Mac Powerbooks.

For those of you who aren't the type to purchase expensive yak-hats, here's a taste of what's coming next spring, if not sooner. Both of these songs are romantic, timeless and classic, and I suggest you prepare to love them as if they were a fine glass of water.

Chelsea Burns

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