Patricia Barber has always been edgy, iconoclastic, and daring, and she has committed the cardinal sin of insisting on creative control of her product. After seven albums on her own label (Premonition) or in cooperation with Blue Note, this is the first to be released exclusively by the latter.
Not coincidentally, her music is unique and instantly identifiable: powerful and passionate, but also whimsical and tongue-in-cheek. Barber is a skilled pianist and supple singer who can be sensitive or scathing, and her band perfectly midwives her message. Her lyrics are clever, stinging, and often dark, full of metaphor and irony. In 2003, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to create an eight-song cycle; the first of these is here as "Whiteworld," an angry indictment of imperialism: "I'm a gangster in a Hummer/and this culture will yield/to me." No, there's no trace of moon-June-spoon in Barber.
In the hypnotic "Gotcha," her ode to fretful, late-night paranoia, she asks, "did you ever think a piano could fall on your head?/do you look over your shoulder at all?" As usual, Barber transcends category: she transforms an 18th century French poem into a beautiful ballad, churns "Whiteworld" into a funk fest, and merges acid rock, blues, and free jazz for the cacaphonous "Clash."
Having said all that, this is a surprisingly accessible album, culled from her two-week tour of France in early 2004. Barber's familiar sharp angles are softened by moments of pure beautymost notably, her gentle rendition of "Laura," with ethereal commentary from superb guitarist Neal Alger, which truly captures the intent of the lyric: that "she's only a dream." On the instrumental "Witchcraft" she shows she can swing as well as any jazzer, throwing in a little Basie ending as a wry salute to the mainstream. Both the witty "Pieces" and the aching "Blue Prelude" are about dashed hopes and fractured relationships, but the CD ends with "Call Me," the Chris Montez hit from the '60s, a hopeful samba that clears the brain and quiets the soul after "Whiteworld."
Such careful sequencing helps blend the disparate musical elements into a coherent and satisfying package of pure Barber-ism. It's a brilliant and intriguing CD.
Personnel: Patricia Barber (piano, vocals), Neal Alger (guitar), Michael Arnopol
(bass), Eric Montzka (drums)