That I can’t understand the lyrics to almost half of Nolita, Keren Ann Zeidel’s fourth album (the first two were released only in France) is unimportant. What matters, and what becomes the essential core and beauty of the album, is the mood she creates. In the label’s press release, Keren Ann compares the album to a photograph, saying, “I like the capture moments.” With barely there singing (often in French), a smooth wash of background vocals, a plucked classical guitar or violin, Nolita is, in its own decidedly quiet manner, a perfectly assembled scrap book: subtle, insistently exquisite.
Keren Ann’s cosmopolitan pedigree — her mother is Dutch; her father, Israeli — and a life shared between Paris and New York has something to do with Nolita‘s hushed resonance. And although bohemia lends itself to over-romanticizing, Nolita‘s minute power is not so much in the welding of multicultural influences but in the feeling that Paris and New York are not all that different. “Whether we were lost of overwhelmed/ Nobody knows that I’m better off/ Making up lies to be left alone,” she sings on “Chelsea Burns,” which is, by way of the title, a New York song. But the slow setting sun suggested by the violins and harmonica, the brushed cymbals and, of course, Keren Ann’s soft, pitch-perfect delivery makes geography distinctions irrelevant. “Chelsea Burns” is a song about longing, invoked with the subtlest ingredients, and it rings clear, albeit whispered, in any language.
Though it bears traces of two distinct locations, the movement suggested in Nolita is so slow that it seems nothing much is happening. And that’s the point. Keren Ann’s New York is not one of traffic and people but of late-night solitude, a shared cigarette in the shadows, smoke rising from subway grates in the distance. Songs float by with simple guitar lines, slight electronic flourishes (“La Forme et La Fonde”), and yet, as Jon Pareles writes in a New York Times piece (August 16, 2004), “They can make a few fingerpicked notes seem to enfold an entire world.”
The few crescendos on the record are rendered more potent because of their relative absence elsewhere. True, nothing much happens. But although the pace may put a few off, the orchestra swells near the end of the title track suggest in their own way minor revelations: not fireworks, but maybe a friend turning the corner up ahead, or a glance across a dark bar. In Keren Ann’s cities, these are the beautiful triumphs.