Once in a while, a song comes along that's so perfect it makes all other songs intolerable. Not just songs by other musicians, but songs on the same CD seem gratingly imperfect by comparison. The miracle song doesn't just summarize experiences, it complements and enhances them, like having a hazy gold filter on your world that sharpens the focus and deepens the contrast of every thought, image or emotion. Miracle songs come along when you need them the most, and while they don't make you feel better or worse, they inexplicably make you feel more.
I was visiting a friend in New York City in the fall of '95 when I first heard "Hestia" by Katell Keineg, and although I've never been a compulsive
song-repeater, I probably listened to it about 100 times in the next month. The lyrics and the tune were heartbreakingly sad but incredibly graceful, like a deathblow delivered by a ballerina's kick. Keineg's mournful, soaring voice made all other voices sound hoarse and clumsy by comparison.
For a long time, "Hestia" spoiled me for other songs -- I'd invariably stop the next song I heard halfway through. Silence and the memory of that one perfect song were far better than what seemed like cheap imitations and feigned emotions.
The problem with the miracle song is that it leaves the rest of its sibling songs on the album flailing in its wake. "O Seasons, O Castles," Keineg's 1994 album, was uneven at best, and the only songs that come close to the power of "Hestia" are "Paris" and "O Seasons." But the price of the whole CD is worth the thrill of that first breathtaking tune.
Keineg's latest offering, "Jet," is unpredictable and also fairly uneven, but this time she's on more often than not. At her best -- on "The Battle of the Trees," "Smile" and "Venus" -- she sounds like a combination of Sinead O'Connor and P.J. Harvey, with only a simple acoustic strum accompanying her haunting voice.
Unfortunately, while the songs on "Jet" are a major step above her last offering, many of the arrangements on her new album are so hokey and leaden that they bog it down. Like O'Connor and Harvey, who had transcendent accompaniment and arrangements on "The Lion and the Cobra" and "Dry,"
respectively, and more awkward, unnatural backing on their later albums, many of Keineg's songs are broken by arrangements that sound like they were
written for an eighth-grade marching band. "One Hell of a Life," in particular, begins with what sounds like the keyboards from an early-'80s Jimmy
Given Keineg's talent for simple, acoustic songs, it's a shame that the band must play on -- and then be remixed and reverbed and regurgitated until her lyrics are almost squelched of their soul. The arrangements do hit about half the time; if she could just unplug that damn keyboard and insert some less intrusive percussion, "Jet" would be an exceptional album.
The accompaniment on "Hestia," of course, is impeccable. But if we can't have miracles, scrap the baggage and just let us hear that heart-wrenching voice.