The Israel-born, Paris-raised, New York-based Keren Ann's set at the Black Cat Wednesday night needed a jolt of joie de vivre. The 33-year-old chanteuse (last name: Zeidel) played with a blank face for the first two-thirds of the show, sucking the energy out of a set that would have already been mellow with its intimate, down-tempo sound.
Keren Ann took the stage in a black T-shirt with the word "cash" emblazoned across the front in silver, which she didn't bother to explain. After seven snoozy songs, she picked up the pace by strapping on a harmonica and launching into "Lay Your Head Down," the most accessible single on her self-titled new album. At last, some conviction: The refrain, "Why don't you lay your head down in my arms?" sounded like a demand, not a wistful come-on. Stripped of the recorded version's strings and choir voices, Keren Ann and her band stepped in with more prominent guitar and drums to impart rock-and-roll energy (the harmonica proved superfluous). An attempt at stirring up audience participation -- hand claps -- fell flat. "That works best with children," she acknowledged. "But we don't ever play for children." Cue Debbie Downer.
"Lay Your Head Down" lent some momentum to the next song, the brash "It Ain't No Crime" with its claustrophobic drumbeat and vocal distortions. Despite lyrics like "A skill for foolin'/That's all I have/I promise kisses/But not to love," Keren Ann offered only a glimpse at her inner vixen.
-- Rachel Beckman
Ontario singer-songwriter Basia Bulat went on at Jammin' Java unannounced and alone Wednesday night, beginning her first local appearance with an a cappella ballad. Stamping her feet and clapping her hands to accompany her husky warble, she conjured an otherworldly atmosphere, but the audience, which numbered only in the dozens, seemed not to notice, going on with their conversations as if they weren't meeting a gifted and maybe even important new artist then and there.
The cool reception didn't faze her. On her first U.S. tour, Bulat seemed grateful just to sing, eventually winning the crowd with an hour of haunting waltzes and oblique love songs (plus one hit-in-waiting, the snare-driven "In the Night") from "Oh, My Darling," her full-length debut. The album, which Bulat spent her student loans to record in 2006, got a stateside release on Super Tuesday, she pointed out, getting a few laughs at her bemusement over the phrase.
Bulat's supple voice recalls that of '90s divas like Natalie Merchant or Paula Cole, but her already mature songcraft could gain traction with Joni Mitchell fans or the cult of Regina Spektor. Fronting a five-piece ensemble, the singer alternated between the Autoharp and an acoustic guitar that looked huge in her diminutive arms. Songs like "December" and "Snakes and Ladders" had a baroque, Tom Waits quality that helped them transcend the danger of sounding twee. And her choice of artists to cover -- Daniel Johnston and Sam Cooke -- reinforced her broad genre interest and sense of soul.
Talent and charm aren't always enough. But it's a fair bet all those folks who barely looked up from their cellphones when Bulat took the stage might someday be bragging that they saw her way back when.
-- Chris Klimek