Keren Ann sounds just charming on her own, but "Lady & Bird" manages to make her sound even better -- simply by pairing her with Iceland's Bardi Johannson, of the Icelandic band Bang Gang. The result is a dreamy, sparkling little pop album that leaves a bittersweet trail in its wake.
It opens with a music-box tinkling mixed in with acoustic guitar. "Feel what I feel/... going nowhere," Keren Ann croons softly in a voice that seems to have a dozen discordant echoes. That is only enhanced with "Shepherd's Song," a downright creepy rock song with gothic keyboard and a deep voice telling a strange story ("They knew about the presence of other people... they knew about the sun").
They don't really do anything that hard again. The rest of the album is made up of gentle, gauzy pop with different themes -- a faithful cover of the Velvet Underground's "Stephanie Says," fluting ballads, sparkly trip-hop tripping over an organ, and various wintry pop songs that grow more ethereal as the album winds down.
"Nana says that we all makes mistakes... I think they cannot see us," says the fictional "Lady" in the closing song, as a pair of children feel isolated from the world of grown-ups, and decide to cling to one another. To round it off, there's a live performance of "Do As I Do," but it seems rather anticlimactic.
Icelandic pop music has a reputation for wintry, eerie, elusive sounds, especially with artists like Bjork and Mum. Johannson doesn't do anything to dispel that reputation here, but Keren Ann's presence grounds it with her sweet voice and knack for less ethereal musical stylings.
Very soft acoustic guitar makes up the backbone of this album, but it's not the only instrument used. Equally soft flutes open "Walk Real Slow," and a few songs are heavily laced with airy trip-hop blips and soundscapes. Not to mention that dancey little organ that bounces through "Run in the Morning Sun."
Keren Ann's voice is usually quite pretty, but here she sounds like a pensive angel. Her vocals are layered constantly, with shifting words and intonations under one another. And the songs she sings are pretty -- some are rather simplistic ("Do As I Do" is basically four or five lines, repeated), but often they are bittersweet and evocative ("Through the window of my neighbours/There are fallen leaves/In my pillow...")
"Lady and Bird" is a rare collaboration where you wouldn't be able to identify the artists, unless you were told who they are. A quiet, bittersweet little masterpiece.