It's a trend that never happened... yet. The whole singer-who-isn't-really-a-singer trend is the non-trend I'm talking about. Still with me? Here's a quick taste:
"Tall and tan and young and lovely
The girl from Ipanema goes walking
And when she's walking each one she passes goes, 'aah...'
"Aah," indeed. Aah-strud Gilberto probably started it right there in 1963, with her soft, sexy vocals (you can't really call it singing, and let's agree to avoid the term "spoken word") on "The Girl From Ipanema." Was it her tone, her timing, or her awesome Brazilian accent that made it so phenomenal? Americans have never been known for their love of foreign-accented English, but Astrud was different. Her voice was full of promise, as if she were translating the original Portuguese lyrics on the spot, and perhaps keeping some of the good stuff to herself. Plus, "Astrud Gilberto?" Best. Name. Ever.
After Astrud, la deluge. Or not, as it turned out. There have been a few notable bandwagon-jumpers to this whole English-in-translation vocal style but not as many as one might expect, given the global success of "The Girl from Ipanema." The most successful were both products of the sick mind of Serge Gainsbourg (a description he would no doubt have approved; R.I.P. Serge), namely "Bonnie and Clyde" (1968), featuring Brigitte Bardot, and "Je T'Aime...Moi Non Plus" (1969), with the lovely Jane Birkin on the mic. If you've never heard Bardot sing but you know what she looked like in 1968, you've pretty much got the idea. And while it might not seem much on paper, "Bonnie and Clyde" is a fantastic song. With Birkin, you get the same concept in reverse: a native English speaker (she's British) singing in French, plus a lot of heavy breathing, which is expressed in the universal language of love.
So they have the non-native tongue thing in common, but there's also something else binding Gilberto, Bardot, and Birkin together: it's the ease with which they do their thang. Their singing sounds like one big, long sigh -- and what could be more relaxing than that? Actually, it's hard. Try to sing in a whisper and you will find that your sense of pitch, if you have one, flounders in the compromised airspace. Then try to whisper-sing in a foreign language. See? It's not as easy as it sounds.
So I guess that's why we have these long gaps in between the appearances of sexy, breathy, talky foreign songstresses. There was a notable addition to the field in 2004, when Japanese jazz pianist and singer Michiko Ogawa released It's All About Love and on it her version of Billie Holiday's "I Cover the Waterfront." I know it sounds unlikely, but trust me! Unfortunately, you'll have to, because it's pretty hard to find the album.
Luckily for this generation's hipsters, a new gal has appeared on the scene in the last few years, Keren Ann of France (to be specific, she apparently "divides her time" between Paris and New York. How much time does she have, anyway?) Keren Ann started to get attention in the U.S. with her last two releases, Nolita (2003) and Not Going Anywhere (2004). It was in these albums that she earned her place in the Gilberto-Bardot-Birkin pantheon, with songs like "Spanish Songbird" and "Roses and Hips." Her voice is soft and mellow, but she never drifts too far into the "Happy Birthday Mr. President" zone of things (we haven't even discussed Marilyn Monroe's contributions to the genre).
Now Keren Ann has a new album, a collaboration with an Icelandic lad named Bardi Johannsson. If it weren't for Bjork, I suppose the world would summarily dismiss an Icelandic popster, but we live in a post-Bjork world, don't we? So it won't seem strange when I tell you that Keren Ann and Bardi Johansson, performing as Lady and Bird, do a cover of "Suicide is Painless," which you will remember as the theme song to M*A*S*H. Oh, 2006. That's the world we live in. Well, "Suicide is Painless" is not the best track on the album -- in fact it's frighteningly redolent of 1970, with all that implies. Lady and Bird moves away from the pure Keren Ann loveliness in that it's more obviously produced; there's just more sound on this album. That's not necessarily a bad thing, although I think I could have done without the Keren-and-Bardi-on-helium final track, "La Ballade of [sic] Lady and Bird." Ah, well. Even Monsieur Gainsbourg had his off days. He had a lot of them, as a matter of fact.
So if you think that a straight shot of Keren Ann might be too much prettiness in one package, give Lady and Bird a try. It may satisfy your need for funny little digital sounds to interrupt the pure joy of analog sound.