The latest French chanteuse of note, Keren Ann, has already done something most of her contemporaries and many of her predecessors have never done: made a splash in America. To be fair, Ann enjoys some key advantages over her sisters (yes, she's also tres hot, in that languid, post-coital French fashion, but we're talking about her music, people. Really.) For starters, she spends half the year in New York, and can sing in English. Therefore she's hipper to what Americans — or at least New Yorkers — like. Six of the 11 cuts on her latest, Nolita, are sung in English (her debut, Not Going Anywhere, was sung entirely in English). Her voice is a mix of Hope Sandoval and Yo La Tengo's Georgia Hubley, and these songs often owe inspiration to Beth Orton, sonically speaking.
The four French songs are more traditional and are spread out over the course of the record, forcing you to overcome your foreign language phobia (or press "skip"). The record's only grave mistake is the closer, "Song of Alice," a self-indulgent spoken word piece by a gentleman best left anonymous since he clearly poses a danger to himself and others. Still, Ann has done an admirable job as an immigrant in capturing some of our music's nuances while keeping her own traditions alive.
Track to burn: Roses & Hips
Want another reason to fear Clear Channel's robber baron grip on the radio airwaves? How about the danger it poses to the great American Songbook — future generations may never even have the chance to be inspired by the vast variety of American music, let alone know their Lerner & Loewe from their Brooks & Dunn. But when it comes to music's modern-day Goliath, the soft-spoken and unassuming M. Ward does a pretty mean David.
The Portland native's fourth record is a love song to the "last of the remaining independent radio stations," and a reminder of a time when it was possible to hear, say, Louis Armstrong, the Beach Boys and the Carter Family together without owning an iPod.
Ward pays tribute to Armstrong, Brian Wilson and the Carters (as well as J.S. Bach) via beautifully re-worked covers sprinkled amid a dozen of his own timeless originals. Ward delivers the covers and his own engaging narratives in a hoarse whisper that could come from the Appalachias, the Mississippi Delta or Tin Pan Alley. Using those influences and a host of others, Ward strums and finger-picks his way through an array of styles — from boogie-woogie to Greenwich Village folk and Beatles-inspired pop — without evoking cheap nostalgia.
But this is no mere exercise in genre-hopping, either. Ward's songs don't so much represent genres (either old or new) as blur the lines between them. That's certainly the case with the Armstrong-inspired rendition of "Sweethearts On Parade," Ward morphing it into a sparkling up-tempo pop number. Similarly, he transposes the lovely "You Still Believe in Me" from Pet Sounds into the sparse solo acouistic gem that opens Transistor Radio, then closes the record with another solo re-working, this time of Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier."
Ward's compositions and reinterpretations remind us that music is alive and ever-evolving, and that no genre is ever really spent — only some people's imaginations.
Track to burn: Fuel For Fire