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'Lay Your Head Down' and the Language of Beauty

Francophone singer-songwriter Keren Ann sings in English on "Lay Your Head Down."
Francophone singer-songwriter Keren Ann sings in English on "Lay Your Head Down."

It's hard out there for a Francophone singer-songwriter whose name isn't Serge Gainsbourg or Edith Piaf, at least in America. It's not just a xenophobic "Freedom Fries" thing — after all, Americans like French electronica (Air, Justice, Daft Punk) just fine. It's probably just that the songs are sung in a language most Americans don't understand, which in turn neutralizes the subtleties and wordplay that define so many of the best French chansons.

The delicate-voiced Keren Ann started her career making albums in French, but on her third CD, 2003's Not Going Anywhere, English reared its head. Her U.S. breakthrough album, 2004's indie- and AAA-straddling Nolita, mixed French and English, winning her raves from Anglophones and Francophones alike. But for her gorgeous new eponymous disc, Keren Ann returns to English — and it's easy to forget that this French singer of Israeli-Dutch-Indonesian heritage is anything but American.

"Lay Your Head Down" sounds like a Cowboy Junkies tribute to Velvet Underground, or something from a phantom second volume of Yo La Tengo's acoustic- and covers-heavy Fakebook CD. But where those bands might turn the song's motorik rhythm into a clangy freakout, Keren Ann's bridge comes with a gentle harmonica solo that's seconded by a guitar playing tiny licks that could be dropped straight into "Waiting for My Man." Maybe that's her European side: keeping matters reserved rather than giving in to North American bombast. But her music is polyglot, at least in this sense: All languages understand beauty.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

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Christopher Porter
Christopher Porter is a freelance writer, editor and photographer based in Silver Spring, Md. He has a bad back and great hair. His work has appeared in Alternative Press, Entertainment Weekly, ESPN the Magazine, Inside Entertainment, Global Rhythm, Harp, JazzTimes, National Geographic World Music, Time Out Chicago, The Stranger, Vibe, Washington City Paper and The Washington Post. He blogs and repurposes junk at www.christopherporter.com.