It seems like just yesterday that Pink Martini released their second album, Hang On Little Tomato. Well, just yesterday in the Pink Martini time continuum, anyway. In reality, it’s been two and a half years since the October, 2004 release of that album. But it took the band seven years to produce that one after the release of Sympathique, their maiden voyage- released in November of 1997. Given the proportionate ratio at which the band seems to be coming up with new product, one might rightfully expect that the band should have another album ready within a year or so. And, actually, that is not far from the mark: there is a full-length video release planned for the Fall.
And, let’s face it, the road, though long (both in distance and duration), has not been necessarily difficult for the band. They have long been local, national and international darlings for their hybridized sound- a loose collection of pan-world pop music, coupled with a ‘50s Space Age Bachelor Pad exotica, ala Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman and Juan Esquivel. They have found their own musical niche, where none really existed before- playing with local symphony orchestras across the nation, to an older demographic.
A clear indication of that older demographic can be clearly demonstrated in one vivid detail. Soundscan, a division of the Nielsen survey corporation, tracks sales data for all music products and is the sales source for the Billboard music charts. Most contemporary young bands who appeal to demographic groups profiling in the 18-35 ranges, show an online digital download percentage of sales in the 30-40% range, some higher, some lower, depending on product availability in reporting retail stores, etc. Pink Martini charted 2% in digital download sales among over 200,000 copies of Tomato sold in the US over the past 30 months. Computer? What computer? Eh? What’s that sonny?
As the band has risen to notoriety, both at home and abroad, National Public Radio, especially, has adopted Pink Martini as something of constitutional mascot. With this album, one can look for a lot more of that. Rumor has it that the band were joined onstage by Ringo Starr and Elton John at a performance at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, while Sharon Stone danced in the wings waving an icepick. Well, that’s the rumor anyway.
Bandleader, pianist Thomas Lauderdale, a perfectionist of the highest order, on stage and in the studio, has, over the course of the band’s twelve year history, assembled a company of musicians whose credentials rival his own (which are superlative). This list includes world renowned bassist Phil Baker; Brian Davis and Derek Reith, founding members of the Lions of Batucada Brazilian percussion team; Peruvian-born drummer Martin Zarzar; Gavin Bondy and Robert Taylor on trumpet and trombone, respectively; violinist Paloma Griffin and vocalist Timothy Nishimoto. But the member whose star has remained most consistently on the rise is vocalist and budding songwriter China Forbes. In both respects, Ms. Forbes displays a ripening perspective, with a distinctive sense of maturity.
Here, as with Tomato, there is an abundance of arcane original material. And again Forbes has a hand in most of the originals among the dozen songs presented, including the title track, which is a real departure from anything the band has ever previously recorded. Engineer deluxe, Diamond Dave Friedlander, again lends his expertise to the proceedings capturing the sound at Kung Fu Bakery studios- crafting a warm, burnished sheen around each number, highly reminiscent of the heyday of analog recording in the late ‘50s.
In fact, the sound is so lush and warm here, one wonders why there is no vinyl version of this album (or the others- especially Tomato) in the offing- especially given the band’s roots in the whole Space Age Bachelor Pad dynamic- which was deeply rooted in the hi-fi revolution of the early ‘50s and which seems especially suited to this music- whose dynamics can range from the hush of orchestral parlor music to raucous roar Latin rhythms in the span of 32 bars. However, were it not for mysteries such as this (and so many others), Pink Martini would not remain the legendarily anomalous music industry enigma that they have become. God bless ‘em.
The album kicks off with “Everywhere,” a Forbes/Lauderdale paean to standards and show tunes of the ‘30s and ‘40s. With a luxuriant string section surrounding her, Forbes sounds somewhere between a young Doris Day (without Doris’ vocal chops, which she had honed with orchestras on stage by age 16) and middle period Julie Andrews, with a finely controlled upper register. But, as a composition, “Everywhere” falls a little short.
The lyric and melody in the verses are more reminiscent of what used to be called a “refrain” in the old days: a little, non-repeated lead-in section that would introduce the “chorus,” which would be the part of the song that the public walked around singing (check out the band’s rendition of “Tea For Two” at the end of the album for a perfect example of this).
Song structure has changed somewhat since those days and one seldom hears a refrain today. Here, the bridge is a well-constructed turnaround. But the main melody lacks memorability and the lyric tries just a little too hard for the sort of sophistication that Cole Porter made seem effortless. “Everywhere I go I know/Everywhere I go will glow/The sleepy summer sky/The lovers passing by/All the cities too/Make me think of you.” Still, a worthy effort at attempting to recreate the sound of an era.
“Tempo Perdido,” written by Brazilian samba artist Ataulpho Alves is right in the Pink Martini pocket- precisely what the populace expects to hear from the band, with a rich vocal, in well-rounded Spanish, by Forbes. Zarzar contributes “Mar Desconocido” a fiery Piazzola-esque number, which Forbes also sings in perfect Spanish, as Lauderdale adds a very interesting classical flourish to the instrumental section in the middle. Nicely played!
As also has become something of a tradition with the band, there is a piece of Japanese pop music included. Here it is “Taya Tan,” a song made popular in Japan by actress/singer Saori Yuki. Again Forbes displays a Berlitzian gift for language, knocking out satisfactory conversational Japanese here.
“City Of Night,” penned by Forbes and Lauderdale, is in no danger of confusing anyone that it might be the words of Arthur Rimbaud, but it is harmless enough and affects a vague, Flamenco-ish stylization- again, right up Pink Martini’s alley. “Ojala” another Forbes/Lauderdale composition (here assisted by Nishimoto and Luisa Quinoy) explores a Latin parlor arrangement in the French language with Forbes and Nisimoto sharing the vocal duties. Bondy adds a sprightly trumpet solo to the mix.
The band charts new territory with a madcap interpretation the Arabic pastiche “Bukra Wba’do.” Forbes gives the new language a valiant effort, though Sima Bina’s throne would seem not as yet to have a suitable suitress. It is not entirely clear how well the name China would fly in Iran these days, anyway. Someday, perhaps. The horns cut up with righteous aplomb- Bondy with muted trumpet, Taylor with slippery slide trombone- while China vamps the vocal, sounding a little bit like Kaye Ballard in her appearance on the 1958 recording “The Fanny Brice Story.”
Baker’s beautiful bossa nova “Cante e Dance” moves smoothly between a Jobim-ish verse (sung in duet by Nishimoto and Forbes) and the gorgeous, ringing chorus- perhaps the loveliest section on the album. Very nice. Memorable. With the central riff lifted directly from Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell’s hit, “You’re All I Need To Get By,” the title track shuffles off in a different direction.
A different direction, a complete stylistic departure, is precisely what this track represents for Pink Martini, for nowhere in “Hey Eugene” is there to be found any of that international flair for which the band has garnered so much acclaim. Instead we get the tale of an interlude in Forbes’ life, supposedly with a school teacher she met at a party in New York City- admirably bolstered by anonymous backup singers and warm purring horn charts; disguising nicely the fact that it is the same four-note descending chromatic run through the entire song. One longs for a bridge, a key change, something, anything, to break it up. But no. Given this little orchestra’s penchant for arrangement- this particular one seems to fall a bit short. This will, no doubt, be the only review in the entire world to cast such an aspersion: but voila! It’s a cute song though.
At first blush, one might think that “Syracuse” was the next night on that New York tour. However that is soon cleared up with Forbes holding high the Piafian torch, while lush strings engorge themselves, swelling passionately in stirring passages. Whew! Got through that. She could be singing short orders for McDonald’s and no one would care. She’s doing it in French for chrissakes. Taylor’s sensuous trombone solo is as effortless as it is scintillating. The entire production is sterling, to say the least. This is Pink Martini’s turf- and there may be no band extant (in, perhaps, the past fifty years- since oh, Jackie Gleason’s Orchestra) to create this sort of music any better than these guys do. It really is as good as it gets, if this your cup of crepe. Don’t be misled by imposters. Are there any imposters?
“Dosvedanya Mio Bambino” sounds like a suitable follow up to Mary Hopkin’s big 1968 hit (produced by Beatle Paul McCartney), “Those Were The Days.” The horns and strings, especially, augment this impression. Still, Forbes sounds more like Doris Day in the early ‘50s, than like any Brit waif from the ‘60s and this song is far too jaunty at heart. No doubt, it is a big hit on the live stage, where Pink Martini excel.
The final cut, the aforementioned “Tea For Two,” a longtime standard penned in the ‘20s by Vincent Youmans and Irving Caesar (and made a hit by Doris Day in 1950) is, perhaps, the finest track Pink Martini have ever recorded. The reason for this assertion becomes abundantly clear, once Forbes concludes the superbly crafted initial (see above) refrain. The song is suddenly transported at the chorus by the entry of (“Little”) Jimmy Scott. Within one bar, one instantly recognizes the presence of vocal greatness. Sounding not unlike Sarah Vaughan, Scott does not hold back, but gives Forbes a lesson in what sixty years of vocalization can do for one’s chops. It is a station to which, at this point, China might only aspire- but she could find no better vocal teacher than Jimmy Scott making “Tea For Two” his very own here. A classic interpretation!
Pink Martini graze in familiar pastures with their third album, yet still manage to tread new ground- which is something of an achievement, given their chosen musical milieu. Friedlander’s exquisite recorded sound and Lauderdale’s deftly transparent control over the whole production; his artful, retrospectively sweeping musical vision and position as great artificer, almost divorced entirely from the process of his project. That is a true bandleader.
Lovers of Pink Martini will love Hey Eugene!. Haters will hate it. The uninitiated will be converted slowly, inexorably as wind and rain wear down mountains of stone. All is right in the Pink Martini world. The sun is shining. The sky is blue. The birds of paradise are singing. A warm breeze is blowing. Everything is perfect.