There are mood records and then there are mood records. Replete with caressing vocal whispers, exquisitely subtle harpsichord embellishments, actual samples of crashing ocean waves and tasteful, beatific guitar lulls, Keren Ann’s American debut sets out to score your dreamscapes with gossamer threads of sheer musical wisp and shimmer. In the right mood—perhaps one of those soft, quiet nights where a stiff breeze whistles gently through your window and the unvanquished candle flickers gentle tongues of shadow onto the ceiling—it would be hard to find anything more sublime than these eleven modest kisses of sound.
An album of such unabated elegance and beauty delights on first introduction. However, the sheer joy of the escape fades after a time and one gets the asphyxiating sense of being ever-so-gradually smothered with a sheet of fabric softener. The experience never manages to induce any real pain, but the soothing quality itself becomes mildly abrasive. Precious is as precious does: at her hardest, chanteuse Keren Ann sounds like Joni Mitchell at her most listless, or alternately Suzanne Vega, whose deadpan child-voice Ann remarkably approximates on the creepy murder ballad “Sailors and Wives.” When the ambient seashore noises enter on “Right Now & Right Here,” don’t feel guilty for thinking too much effort went into maintaining the record’s quirky atmosphere.
That said, on her own terms Keren Ann offers an arresting degree of … well, quirk and atmosphere. The opener “Not Going Anywhere” features fresh vocal inflections, rambling lyrics and an organically expanding collage of accompanying sounds. In its best moments, you’ll detect hints of Nick Drake’s musicality and Björk’s impish pan-cultural innocence. Born to Dutch-Javanese and Russian-Israeli parents and currently living in Paris, Keren Ann’s music subtly absorbs a variety of textures, weaving them into one artistically sensible whole. It’s the type of thing sophisticates love to love, and while it may be a little too somnolent even for Starbucks, it’s the sort of thing that, mixed with incense, could easily abet a pretentious turtlenecked seduction.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with musical elegance for its own sake, and Not Going Anywhere features much in that realm. Immaculately performed and compellingly produced, it’s full of subtle touches—a choir coda on “End of May,” bubbly guitar on “Road Bin,” horns at the end of “Polly.” Indeed, if there’s a fault to the musical arrangements, it’s that they’re simply too finely-woven and clever.
A vague dearth of intensity ultimately keeps this amazing quasi-debut from proving an unqualified masterpiece. Ann’s thin cuteness is just meatless enough to beg something more. But it’s a great album all the same—inviting and incandescent in its thoughtful gentleness, it defies gravity in favor of fluffy hallucination and silken coziness. An elegant form of loving catatonia for those seeking the softest of sonic repose.