thu 19/04/2018

Pink Martini, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Pink Martini, Barbican

Pink Martini, Barbican

Elegant kitsch from multi-cultural lounge lizards

Pink Martini: top-notch lounge that any hotel in the world should be thrilled to have playing

“You see! This is America! All races, genders and everything else blending together to make something beautiful!” This a quote from an American fan living in the Middle East currently on Pink Martini’s website. Thomas Lauderdale, the musical director of the band was involved in politics, about to run for Mayor in Portland, Oregon when he put Pink Martini together. When their first international hit came along in 2004, at the height of "the anti-American craze", as the singer Caetano Veloso put it, the band were an export from America that liberals could love.

Pink Martini were multi-cultural lounge lizards who made people think differently about America. Not through folk protest songs but through charming people’s socks off with the help of supremely sophisticated kitsch. The band, now on their fourth album, have sold three million records and packed the Barbican where they got a rousing standing ovation. Their music is light music, they are not part of the cult of authenticity and trade in multiple, mostly delicious, fantasies. One aspect is an intelligent and witty trawl through the American songbook and the history of jazz, so that you imagine you are in a cocktail bar with Dorothy Parker, and possibly Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn at the corner table.

PINK-MARTINI-PIANOAt one point Lauderdale (pictured right) mentioned Havana in 1962 and another strong strand is the Afro-Cuban ingredient – although again it’s an elegantly watered down version – the modern equivalent of the likes of Edmundo Ros, whose music my grandparents used to dance to in the Fifties. Another element is a fantasy of Europe, with songs in French and Italian –swooningly romantic retro songs for listening in the sports car while driving with your lover down the Amalfi coast. Then there are the more random cultural borrowings – occasional songs from Egypt, Turkey and Japan which give a global perspective – although these veer into eclecticism for its own sake even if the lyrics are usually the universal ones of romance and its tribulations. The core of the band are lead singer China Forbes and pianist and arranger Lauderdale (who has Asian and American forbears) who met at Harvard and there’s a lot of cleverness involved – the audience is flattered into a sense of sophistication.

The appeal is partly sheer nostalgia, of a lost world of elegance and romance in which lyrics like “Love me forever and let forever begin tonight” are somehow both incredibly camp and sincere at the same time. Lauderdale’s pastiches are painstakingly crafted, with all the musicians of the 11-piece band drilled into note-perfect shape. The solos when they come add to the sense of time shift – a touch of Django Reinhardt for the guitar, Gene Krupa-style drums, muted horn players summoning up long forgotten Fifties black and white cop shows.  Just to add to the mixture, and keep the sexual options open, one of the new songs “Bitty Boppy Betty” was the tale of a cross-dressing District Attorney.

So are they more than clever light music, a kind of Mantovani for the age?

China Forbes, who reminded us she just had a baby, sings without much eroticism even in her songs about Latin lovers; the appeal is more a restrained passion – more Brief Encounter than Last Tango. Two songs, “And Then You’re Gone “ and “But Now I’m Back”,  both borrow from the same Schubert tune, the first adding disco strings, which support the “I Will Survive” Gloria Gaynoresque lyrics.

So are they more than clever light music, a kind of Mantovani for the age?  There is always an appeal of light music, which is difficult to do well, of course. If they are playing lounge music, it is top-notch lounge that any hotel in the world should be thrilled to have playing. There is an element of global fakery of course, but actually maybe that’s quite contemporary, as we are all, in the West anyway, losing our roots and our heads are full of fantasies about the world fizzing like intoxicating cocktails. But every now and again, the music lives up to that Noel Coward maxim about the potency of cheap music. Under the veneer of cleverness and sophistication, some heartfelt moments of love and loss lift it out of mere camp and into beauty and something more universal and affecting.

Watch video of “Let’s Never Stop Falling In Love”

Just to add to the mixture, and keep the sexual options open, one of the new songs was the tale of a cross-dressing District Attorney

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