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Keren Ann and Dean & Britta

Museum of Fine Arts

Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Last week’s double bill at the Museum of Fine Arts brought to the stage two seemingly different, yet equally brilliant acts. I’d never witnessed such a divided audience before: young women and French-Americans anticipated Keren Ann’s silky alto and crisp guitar, while middle-aged men — some reeking of marijuana — patiently awaited Dean & Britta’s washy wall-of-sound. Personally, I was more of a Keren Ann fan, but nonetheless loved Dean & Britta’s set of laid-back tunes.

During Keren Ann’s last visit to Boston, she brought along Jason Hart on keyboards and Avishai Cohen on trumpet. For her second North American tour supporting last May’s self-titled album, Keren Ann properly represented her repertoire by substituting Hart and Cohen for a guitarist/bassist and drummer. Her eleven song set displayed not only her beautiful voice and clever songwriting talent, but her ability to create new and exciting arrangements for most of her songs. Most notable was “Notlita,” which opened the show so quietly that one could hear the slight hiss of the house speakers oscillating in and out of Keren’s haunting lyrics: “I think I’m going to bury you / or myself.” Her guitar player added colorful flourishes, mimicking the strings on the studio recording. Most surprising though, was in the middle of the song when the full band kicked in, immediately changing the dynamic of the space.

Adding drums to a song that was once quiet and eerie took courage, but the band commanded attention as Ann continued to plead, “Somewhere I’d like / to be called in safe.” Having another guitar player allowed the thirty-something chanteuse to perform songs laden with lead guitar parts such as the dirty and brash “It Ain’t No Crime,” and the old favorite “Sailor and Widow.” The former included Keren Ann switching to bass, prompting her to admit that “it’s every girl’s fantasy to play bass.” She showed further prowess as a multi-instrumentalist by playing harmonica solos on “Lay Your Head Down” and the lazy, New York nostalgia track “Chelsea Burns.”

On the records, Keren Ann sounds distant, sweet, and reassuring. As a female songwriter, she defies stereotypes by writing about issues such as war (“Where No Endings End”), her friendships (“Harder Ships of the World”), and personal discovery (“Que N’ai Je?”). Constantly changing her voice to fit different songs, she saved an airy, feminine sound for the self-revealing acoustic number “Not Going Anywhere.” Her range seemed significantly improved since her last tour. Through minimal stage banter she admitted that a cold had helped her “reach the low notes.” Her French fans in the audience could only revel in Ann’s native tongue for one song, “Que N’ai Je,” elegantly placed at the climax of the set.

By the last song, Ann’s voice seemed a little tired but she finished the set firmly and beautifully. The guitar and drums faded out as Ann repeated the chorus to “Between the Flatland and the Caspian Sea,” a gospel-like round of “oh Lord,” in descending melodic fashion. The last “oh Lord” remained for a few seconds, as the audience became enveloped in Ann’s delicate voice, and then once again in the hiss of the house speakers.

A short intermission stood between Keren Ann and Dean & Britta’s sets. Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, both members of the now-defunct rock band Luna, released their second LP, Back Numbers, last year. They opened with a white-wash of sonic mania, a song aptly titled “Snowstorm.” Wareham and Phillips traded lead vocals throughout the set, only rarely singing together in sedated harmony. On the Luna albums, Wareham sounds like a Lou Reed impersonator in a Sonic Youth cover band; he sang nonchalantly, with that ever-present scratch at the back of his throat cuing certain notes one way or another, in and out of tune. Yet it always fits with the taut, finger-picking style of his guitar.

In this band, Wareham preserves that same voice with a slight juvenile twist. His singing is more trained, and the songs are more about big, open sounds, as opposed to Luna’s often tight guitar work. What probably contributes to this new sound is the fact that Wareham is the only guitar player; in addition to Phillips on bass, the band is completed by Anthony LaMarca on drums and Matt Sumrow on keyboards. Sumrow primarily played a Rhodes piano, in addition to a number of electronic instruments and synthesizers. LaMarca called no attention to himself, rarely smiling or looking at the audience during songs, but he skillfully switched between a variety of brushes, sticks, and mallets to accommodate the moods of the changing vocalists. Phillips took lead on the more dream-like songs, such as “Singer Sing” and “White Horses,” where she sings “On white horses let me ride away / to my world so far away.”

The highlight of the show, which excited most of the audience, was the performance of the Luna hit “Tiger Lily” during the second half of the set. Sumrow switched to guitar just for this song. Wareham blankly delivered the song, conveying more emotion through his trebly guitar solo. At one point his knees buckled and he crouched to the ground, never straying from his epic solo. He even made efforts to play with his effect pedals for the end of the classic song. Overall, Wareham’s vocals were low in the mix, and Phillips’ bass was a bit too high, but the music came across clearly. The last song, “Strange,” climaxed in swirling guitars and keyboards, showing that Wareham and Phillips had in fact moved on from Luna and were trying something new.

The group came back out for an encore, “Bonnie & Clyde,” a song performed in French, save for the silly, childish chorus where Wareham and Phillips call out to the eponymous criminal duo. Wareham left the stage looking pleased and Phillips stayed back a bit with the rest of the band to receive the audience’s second standing ovation. Depending on whom you sat next to, this was either a Keren Ann show, or a Dean & Britta show. Regardless of the sound, both acts proved to be accomplished musicians, performing in that romantically drudging persona of the traveled and experienced songwriter. Though Ann is a bit younger in terms of her introduction into the real music world, these acts both sing songs that are at times darkly comical or deeply personal, but always wistful.