Patricia Barber: Modern Cool


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"Ironic detachment" is the phrase of the day. Barber is a writer of the social realist school; she presents to us snapshots, deftly characterized, of urban life. Her stance is that of the disinterested observer, drinking it all in, but not commenting on it. Or so she would have us believe. Behind that detachment we can hear her commentaries: we can hear her sneering at those who commodify art, putting on and taking off styles depending upon what is cool; she observes her own depression at a breakup, pretending to be detached, yet her words give her away. Then again, she's not just detached; irony runs through the lyrics and the music. Barber knows she's not really detached, that it's just a stance.

That is to say that there are layers here. The cool reserve, and the attitude that claims the cool reserve as shell. Barber is intelligent enough as a lyricist and singer that she is able to convey all this. Her band, too, seems ideally suited to communicating the mood that Barber is after. While most of the time the music exhibits reserve, there are moments when it gets caught up in a catchy theme; one can almost imagine some of these songs reaching mass audiences. But Barber is too interested in depth for that, she subverts those catchy melodies, taking them apart, and taking the music beyond the merely hummable.

Barber is also a very confident singer. She half sings, half speaks the songs, and her voice is sultry but not seductive. She has the confidence that allows her to refrain from giving full rein to her voice. This confidence is warranted. She turns in a solid performance with rarely a misstep. (Only two are noteworthy: her version of The Doors' "Light My Fire" is too reserved for the passion of the words, and the harmonies of the Choral Thunder Vocal Choir are too rich for the detached irony that pervades the rest of the disc.)

Barber also has the confidence to dedicate a substantial part of the album to non-vocal music. "Constantinople," for example, features some wordless vocals, but it is mostly a chance for the band to show their stuff. Here and elsewhere they make choices that add to the music and demonstrate that they are more than just a supporting band for the singer. Thus John McLean's guitar on "Let it Rain" owes its debt to the electric blues guitar tradition, but this is the tradition updated. After all, he's got the blues, but he's ironically detached too. Fans of Dave Douglas will be happy to hear that he takes several excellent solos here. Finally, lest we forget, Barber is also a pianist. She has a deft and light touch. If she ever wanted to give up singing, she could have a career as a pianist. This is a consistently high-quality album.

You can read more about Patricia Barber at www.premonitionandmusic.com.

Track Listing: Touch of Trash, Winter, You & The Night & The Music, Constantinople, Light My Fire, Silent Partner, Company, Let It Rain, She's A Lady, Love, put on your faces, Postmodern Blues, Let It Rain - Vamp. Total time: 67:49.

Personnel: Patricia Barber: piano, vocal, table knives on strings; Michael Arnopol: bass; John McLean: guitar; Mark Walker: drums, percussion, prepared drum kit; Dave Douglas: trumpet; Jeff Stitely: udu (track 4); Choral Thunder Vocal Choir (track 10, 12).

Title: Modern Cool | Year Released: 1999 | Record Label: Premonition Records


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