Talk about ethnic ambiguity: Born in Israel to a Dutch-Indonesian mother and a Russian-Israeli father, and now living in Manhattan after being raised in Paris, it's no wonder that Keren Ann Zeidel sounds so absolutely far-flung in her influences. Her newest release, Nolita (named after the New York neighborhood where it was partly recorded), skips hypnotically between themes and languages alike. Six of these songs are sung in nearly accent-free English and the remaining five in French. But it's the breathy, minimalist vocals on Nolita that transform its 11 tracks into such an irresistibly captivating affair.
Keren Ann, who records and performs under only her first two names, has been described as Norah Jones with a smoker's voice. But I prefer to think of her as a sexier, sultrier and more mellowed-out Edith Piaf with an acoustic guitar. In fact, Keren Ann wasn't yet a teenager when she learned to fingerpick Serge Gainsbourg tunes, so comparing her to legendary French pop stars might not be too much of a stretch. But listen closely as she lightly purrs the sound of sex on her album's opening track, the jazzy "Que n'ai-je?," or as she nonchalantly tosses off the disc's country-colored folk masterpiece, "Chelsea Burns": You'll notice something individualistic and new, even though Nolita mostly references music that's four or five decades old.
That may be the influence of Keren Ann's longtime collaborator and writing partner, the Icelandic pop musician Bardi Johansson. Or it may be because the precise, comfortable sounds on Nolita were fiddled with by synths and programming equipment: Keren Ann tore ligaments in her thumb just weeks into the recording process, and had to bring in string players to round out the record's sound. Nonetheless, Nolita is a stunning and seriously constructed work of pop brilliance that benefits hugely from its multi-culti roots.
So does Tres Cosas, the third release from Argentinian pop singer Juana Molina. Molina is best known in Argentina as a television actress, so naturally she was mocked by the press and public alike after launching a recording career. But much like supermodel and actress Milla Jovovich, who released a surprisingly fantastic solo album of her own in 1994, Molina quickly proved herself to be an engaging musician. Tres Cosas, like her sophomore release, Segundo, is a folk-heavy singer-songwriter record fused with electronics. Molina doesn't seem to favor varying her style or sound much -- Tres Cosas moves slowly but serenely, and aside from a small bit of violin and keys, the acoustic guitar and Molina's own remixed vocals are what drives these songs forward. (Think Beth Orton, but with a refreshingly light Spanish singing voice.)
Surely, seeing these two performers in tandem at the Andy Warhol Museum will be an experience as culturally heartening as their new releases suggest. Consider it your chance to visit a half-dozen countries at once, without leaving the North Side. Who says Pittsburgh's not international?