One Random Single a Day #100: “Chelsea Burns” (2005) by Keren Ann

Yes!! Finally, I’ve reached the big 100. Of course, I still need to catch up with at least 16-20 new entries in the immediate future to be completely on track. But in any case, I’ve reached 100 which is an accomplishment in and of itself. Today single comes from singer-songwriter Keren Ann, who performs many of her soft, jazzy songs in French and others in English. She has released seven solo albums since the year 2000 and many of her tracks have been featured in a number of high-profile TV shows, such as Grey’s Anatomy and Six Feet Under. It’s hard to know which of her array of recordings is her most well-known, since I’ve found no indication that she’s had much mainstream commercial success, but the closest I’ve found is her English-language song “Not Going Anywhere”, which effectively demonstrates the light, silky nature of her vocal style and her typical sparsely jazzy production and instrumentation that make up the bulk of her work.

Before I encountered this song, I actually had already heard a Keren Ann song, that one being “Run With You” from her sixth album, 2011’s 101. Although I enjoy this song and have for years now, I never bothered to look into any of her other work and just took her as just another peculiar, avant-garde chamber pop artist. As I found out later, though, this sound is a distinct step into a direction that was entirely new from what Keren Ann was previously putting out. Today’s single, “Chelsea Burns”, comes from her 2004 album Nolita, which already demonstrated some interesting, new techniques atypical to which the performer was already attuned. Instead of some plain, interchangeable singer-with-a-guitar production that took up the bulk of her early recordings, the sound on this record carries a bit more weight. Though it remains relatively quiet and wispy, the post-production fingerprints are definitely prominent in the way the instruments present are notably layered atop each other so harmoniously.

Thus is the case with “Chelsea Burns”. Just one listen to the way the lead guitar dances alongside the acoustic rhythm guitar immediately sets the mood to something notably melancholic – the first time I heard it, I certainly couldn’t wait to hear what comes next. And what comes next is the dynamic presence of Keren Ann herself. Here, her gentle vocals are at their absolute strongest and dominate the recording in ways that I didn’t even think were possible. Her range doesn’t deviate very far one way or the other, but that just further magnifies the pain heard in her words, which often don’t come out as more than a whisper. The lyrics are cryptic in that I’m not very certain what story they’re telling. When she sings “Chelsea burns under my feet”, is she talking about a person or a location? Other lines like, “I was running out of trouble; you were running out of fame” doesn’t help to clarify things.

This is hardly a complaint, though. The closest comparison I could make with a song like this would be to the late Leonard Cohen, whose early output was also replete with delicate guitar ballads sung with weighty-yet-barely-there vocal delivery. This even brings to mind his “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” (“I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel / You were famous, your heart was a legend”), so if a similar image was assumed for Keren Ann’s recording, I’d be tempted to peruse the two in an even deeper comparative analysis sometime in the future. But I won’t do that now. I’ve listened to a few other tracks from Nolita – while it’s honestly difficult to find much personality in a lot of them, “Chelsea Burns” is undoubtedly one of the stand-outs. This review is just to say that this song, while far from brilliant, is nonetheless poignant upon a first or second listen. Keren Ann’s music and vocals may be soft, flimsy, and barely there, but what she does with all the empty spaces left behind is nothing short of dynamic.

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