In the sphere of music, few words or phrases conjure up the kind of apathy that terms such as ‘lounge’, ‘Latin influenced’ and ‘dinner party music’ seem to do. Though these adjectives may be somewhat hackneyed, they are sometimes unavoidable – you can’t call a spade anything else – and they don’t have to be interpreted pejoratively. Pink Martini’s latest release, Splendor In The Grass, checks all the boxes above and more, assembling a rich palette of moods, shades and styles, daringly colourful yet still retaining a sense of cohesion and balance that runs right through the record. This is particularly impressive given the dozen-strong band’s propensity to slip guilelessly into a plethora of languages, and French, Spanish, Italian and English are all used to great effect here. A similarly disparate array of special guests also adds to the sense of adventure, with tasteful contributions from The Dandy Warhols’ Courtney Taylor-Taylor, ninety year old Mexican rancheras singer Chavela Vargas, NPR radio host Ari Shapiro and ‘Sesame Street’ actor Emilio Delgado.
The strength of Splendor In The Grass lies at its core, with the opening tracks serving to draw the listener in to the most accomplished material. No sooner have ‘Ninna Nanna’ and ‘Ohayoo Ohio’ passed by in a lovely lilting haze than the title track arrives to dramatically change tack. That the style changes from a bossa nova strut to a piano ballad reminiscent of The Carpenters in the blink of an eye without sounding messy is testament to the immeasurable skill of group leader Thomas Lauderdale and company. There then follows a clutch of songs that can’t fail to delight. The call and response of ‘And Then You’re Gone’ and ‘But Now I’m Back’ wittily tell the tale of sparring lovers Lorenzo and Maria, with the former initially sounding like the intro to an unreleased ABBA tune, while a perfect marriage of Latin rhythms and 1950s pop marks the stylish ‘Sunday Table’.
The true jewel of the album, however, lies in the stunning easy-listening ballad ‘Over The Valley’, a song which sounds 50 years older than it actually is and wouldn’t have sounded out of place in Frank Sinatra’s repertoire. As it is, the song is expertly handled by lead vocalist China Forbes, her superbly crystal clear delivery giving the distinct impression that you’ve heard it before despite being an original composition. Following a sweetly unconventional cover of The Carpenters’ ‘Sing’ in which Forbes duets with Emilio Delgado, ‘Piensa En Mi’ continues the eclectic ethic with a mournful, chanson-style mood aided by the passionate tones of Chavela Vargas. Penultimate song ‘New Amsterdam’ is another highlight, a beautiful elegy to New York that begins with Forbes’s intimate and smoky vocal before expanding to incorporate tubas, trombones and a male voice choir to perfectly encapsulate the Big Apple’s myriad cultural influences.
With Splendor In The Grass, Pink Martini has produced an album which wears its heart, and multiple influences, on its sleeve. Nothing feels out of place here. The recording, production and sequencing are superb, and the performances are exquisite throughout. A beautifully executed record, it is laidback, sweet and life-affirming. Perfect dinner party music, in other words. But that’s no criticism this time. Put this album on for your guests before the hors d’œuvres and they’ll be demanding a copy by the time the main is served.
[Heinz; October 26, 2009]
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