(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Recording review - Pink Martini, Get Happy

Small orchestra under the biggest of tents

Pink Martini is probably the finest small orchestra playing today. Sure, that’s a lot like naming the foremost modern Sanskrit poet, but they take their mission seriously. Their new release, Get Happy, demonstrates how versatile they can be with a mélange of lounge music, jazz standards, Latin dance music, and even a Scott Joplin rag that dates back to 1907. Nothing exceeds like excess, and they embrace this by augmenting their two strong female singers with a cast of guest vocalists including Rufus Wainwright and Phyllis Diller. Diller is, of course, not known for her singing, but the band recorded her poignant version of “Smile” in her own living room last year before her death. The comedienne rose to the challenge, speak-singing her way through the song made famous by Nat King Cole: “Light up your face with gladness/ Hide every trace of sadness/ Although a tear may be ever so near.” The first of Wainwright’s two tracks, “Kitty Come Home”, is equally sentimental if you know the context. Wainwright’s aunt Anna McGarrigle wrote the song to his mother, folk-singer Kate McGarrigle, when she and Loudon Wainwright III split up. Wainwright’s voice is beautiful in the emotionally charged moment.

But does excess equal success? The scope of material and moods pushes Get Happy over the top, but it’s also the album’s Achilles heel. The stylistic leaps can be disconcerting. Rodgers and Hart’s jazz standard “She Was Too Good to Me” veers into the heavy mambo beat of “Sway” and then the band swoops under the emotional weight of “Kitty Come Home". At least the language provides some continuity during that wild ride. The rest of the album is international enough to entertain a U.N. cocktail party: Spanish, German, Japanese, even Farsi gets a chance in the spotlight along with several others. The multicultural flair is overwhelming.

The only way to cope is to take each tune as a standalone piece. The album may be warped by all these disparate forces, but within the context of an individual track, Pink Martini commits to consistency. On the Cuban cha-cha “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás”, the lush strings usher us in and Storm Large’s warm tone sings us a welcome. The verses are understated; the arrangement focuses on the rhythm rather than flash. But the chorus turns fiery as Large voices the impatient accusation, “Estás perdiendo el tiempo” (trans. “You’re wasting time”). A couple of songs later, the band’s primary lead singer, China Forbes, hits the lounge with Philippe Katerine for a sweet, French easy-listening duet, “Je ne t’aime plus”. The jazzy rhythm guitar is buoyed by a light piano and a raft of syrupy strings. The background accents move around from a light chiming percussion to harp flourishes.

Only a couple of tracks miss their mark. The aforementioned “Smile” has its heart in the right place, but Diller’s vocal is meaningless unless you know her and pitting a brilliant but elderly comic against the bittersweet lyrics is weak irony. The other misstep is the conjoined mash-up of “Get Happy/Happy Days”, which pits the two base songs against one another. Wainwright and Forbes do their best with interlocked lyrics, but Wainwright has to strain to find the “Get Happy” melody and the phrasing never quite aligns. Still, with so many different vectors on this album, a couple of strays are almost inevitable.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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