Patricia Barber’s Smash – extraordinary intelligence and articulacy

With the one year anniversary of The Music and Myth fast approaching I was planning on quickly getting one more review/recommendation in before I work on my “anniversary article”. Still, there is no way in hell I am going to rush through a review of Smash, one of the best records you are bound to encounter this year.

(Note: initially I had written “one of the best Jazz records you are bound to encounter” and then I changed my mind)

American singer, songwriter and pianist Patricia Barber is probably one of the most well-liked and most respected Jazz musicians in the world right now and it’s not hard to figure out why. Thirty seconds in, you can already see that it will be very hard to find any fault in this record especially given that it just might be her best yet.

Barber’s voice is flawless, her piano-playing is wonderful and the general instrumental arrangement of the record is brilliant; still neither of these things is the defining trait of Patricia Barber’s work. The qualities that stand out the most are her extraordinary intelligence and her articulacy, evident in the songwriting. Trust me, brilliant lyrics are not always a given, even in Jazz.

The record starts off with “Code Cool”, a very ambitious opening track for various reasons. The bass and drums provide a catchy rhythm and, a few seconds later, Patricia’s piano instantly hooks the listener. And then, of courses, come the lyrics:

Split seconds can carry quite a surprise/diffuse white matter will close my eyes/thus brutalized

I will sleep as if I were dreaming

Emergency downbeat Code Cool begins rapid sequence intubation/IV squeeze and circulation

thus stabilized

I inspire as if I were preaching

Only a minute and a half into the song (and implicitly also the record) Barber makes the very ballsy move of inserting a very slow interlude of sound effects, completely disrupting the pace and leaving the listener “up in the air”. I cannot stress enough how incredibly difficult this is to pull off successfully and when, one minute and twenty seconds later, her piano returns, gentle at first and then intense, you know you are listening to something special. I’ve talked before about the importance of a great opening song and it does not get any better than “Code Cool”. You learn all you need to know about this record from this single track: it is a record of well-calculated instrumentation, sensual vocals and above all brilliant poetry (i square dance slow make love with my lips/ read eyes like books read books like science / i remember and fix citation to case/ case to form/ discombobulation and i can cook up a storm/ i’m Michelangelo’s David tested and worn).

When I say well-calculated instrumentation what I mean is that this record has the singular quality of always being one step ahead of the listener. It is man’s nature, when listening to music, to anticipate the next sound, the direction in which the song is moving and Smash completely disrupts that tendency by changing tempo, instruments or by just flat-out stopping at certain points and pausing for a few seconds before resuming its journey.  You can never really guess where it’s going and that is near-impossible to pull off without angering or frustrating the listener. And yet, Patricia Barber does it to perfection.

“Code Cool” is followed by the haunting and, at times, melancholy “The Wind Song” and the restrained and introspective “Romanesque” before moving forward to the title track. “Smash” is outstanding especially for its switch from gentle and refrained (so this is the sound of a heart breaking) to a well-timed electric-guitar explosion with which the song ends. Reviewer Andrea Canter of The Jazz Police likened this transition to the duality of emotional pain versus physical pain and I think that’s a brilliant observation.

The more upbeat (at least as far as tempo is concerned) “Redshift” is next and, at least in a matter of lyrics, I think it’s the crown jewel of this record, with its clever use of scientific imagery:

Einstein would concur / trajectories are curved / things aren’t what they were or where we left them /

Heisenberg was right / fixing speed and site / for all who love are blind is unwise and uncertain

Starting with “Spring Song” the record moves on to a more conventional “late-night” Jazz feel with more stress on heartfelt ballads, like the stunningly beautiful “Scream” (my personal favorite) and the thoroughly poetic “The Swim”, abounding with wit though never light on content.

An important exception from this more mellow second part is the lively “Devil’s Food”, with bits of disco-funk making use of humor to touch on the subject of gay love as a direct comment on the right-wing reactions against gay marriage. Patricia sings:

look at you, look at me/ baby I can see/ we’re a lot  alike/ does that seem right to you

silk on silk/ sweet on sweet/ meat on meat

boy, you’re smooth/ and you’re just my type/ does that seem right to you

and she befittingly states

boy meets boy / girl meets girl / given any chance / to fall in love / they do

There is also an entirely instrumental track called “Bashful” which allows fellow musicians Larry Kohut (bass), and Jon Deitemyer (drums) a pleasant moment in the spotlight (guitarist John Kregor gets his on “Smash” and “Devil’s Food”) while also highlighting Patricia’s talent on the piano but it doesn’t really stand out from any other point of view. The record closes with the tender and heartbreaking “Missing” an exclamation mark on the more “sentimental” second part proving that, although the album might have lost a bit of steam as it progressed it steadily gained more depth and perhaps more heart.

Overall, Smash is the Meryl Streep of records: intelligent, elegant, with a disarmingly honest intensity but also well-timed humor. I insistently recommend it!

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