Keren Ann Sings Softly in a Language You Don’t Understand

By
Jonathan Horowitz's Nightmare on Main Street: Election '08 (2008) Photo: Getty Images

Both Keren Ann and trumpet player Avishai Cohen mounted the tiny Joe's Pub stage last night wearing dark pants and tops that almost perfectly matched the glass of burgundy clutched in Ann's hand. Though the pairing of her electric hollow-body and acoustic guitars with trumpet seemed less intuitive than the guitar-and-drums of another color-coded duo, the arrangement was often compelling. Her bangs carefully shielding her eyes, a perpetual smile playing in the corners of her lips, the chanteuse broke from her role as jazz-folk ingénue only once, to rib the crowd: "So what are you guys doing tomorrow?" she said, eliciting more than one nervous laugh.

Cohen was a logical choice as accompanist, with his sad, muted trumpet throbbing like a red-wine hangover; he called to mind Chet Baker, a fellow Blue Noter whose lyrical and vocal sensibilities loom large in the singer-songwriter's work. Recorded, Keren Ann can sound overly angelic, indistinguishable French lullabies so hushed and comforting as to be inhuman, like piles of Xanax on high-thread-count sheets. Live, she was a little more raw, her famously whispered delivery at times even approaching the volume of a normal singer. It never got so loud you couldn't pick out the imperfections: a muzzled cell phone chiming in a pocket, the buzz of the monitors, a waitress twisting a cork out of a bottle. Still, it's hard not to be stirred by a voice as beautiful as hers singing softly in a language you don't understand.