Sunday, October 30, 2005

Pink Martini ~ Speaking in Tongues: Polyglot Pop & The Tower of Babel Alumni Reunion Band

Portland's Pink Martini have taken out a patent on Polyglot Pop. Perversely (as 750, 000 sales, and counting, of their independently-released debut album Sympathique attest) it's proving popular.

A shape-shifting simulacrum of a popular music group, Pink Martini effortlessly transform from modern classical "small orchestra" (populated by musical virtuosi of seemingly limitless wit, erudition and skill) to the house band at Club Tropicana, Havana. Metamorphosing from cool Brasilian bossa nova outfit to polyrhythmically percussive Batucada marching band, Pink Martini's chameleonic capacity to imitate a Parisian Café combo, a sophisticated swing ensemble, a Japanese film noir orchestra or a kitsch retro showband (fronted by a fabulous femme fatale) is at least as disorientating as it's impressive.

Pink Martini are either the coolest band in the world, or they're the Tower of Babel Alumni Reunion Band: God Himself may have, inconsiderately, interrupted their last building project, but "Babel Reunited" are, seemingly, hell-bent on erecting another heaven-bound edifice. When Pink Martini performed at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh last Thursday (27th Oct) you needed a calculator to count the languages traversed by beguiling chanteuse China Forbes (& suave male singer Timothy Nishimoto) and a Babel Fish to interpret them. Cosmopolitan kleptomaniacs, Pink Martini, cherry-pick lyrical produce from the orchards of the globe (I counted up to 8, mercifully retaining the use of a thumb and forefinger to clasp my cocktail: Croatian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Japanese and English) to deconstruct and debunk the myth of the insular American.

Bewitching China Forbes' polyglot predilections seemingly extend from the polylingual to the polyamorous: a plethora of pre-song dedications to past, present or prospective paramours (invariably encountered at parties) conjured up images of an orderly procession of linguistically-limited, but hedonistic, suitors eager to reduce China's pyrotechnically promiscuous/polymorphously perverse verbal gifts to a, comparatively, prosaic lingua franca: the language of lust. I was particularly enchanted by Hey, Eugene, a sublimely acerbic tale of unrequited desire, and a long-time live favourite, unaccountably omitted from Pink Martini's debut and sophomore albums (Symathique and Hang On Little Tomato).

Torch songs such as this, fired, and inspired, by flames old and new, are potent proof of Pink Martini's potential, and their conspiratorial chanteuse's intoxicating intimacies drifted like silken strands across the starcloth backing of a band skilled enough to play soft. Pink Martini's pianist, and artistic/musical director, Thomas Lauderdale is a virtuoso talent: his elegant and elaborate arrangements showcase his (and the band's) classical chops, but leaven the gravitas with a light, effortlessly accessible, pop sensibility.

If Forbes' intros focused on lovers, fellow Harvard graduate Lauderdale, confusingly, conflated the triumphant return of Italian designer Emilio Pucci to his alma mater, the University of Oregon, and an esoteric advertisement for Hunt's Ketchup (in a 1964 edition of Life magazine) as he introduced us to Hang On Little Tomato. If Signor Pucci smuggled a scintilla of vicarious style into Portland, Pink Martini's exquisite exports have redressed the balance of trade with interest: their intrinsic elegance prevents Pink Martini from sounding, and looking, like just another bunch of squares trying to play hip.

There are few sights and sounds so excruciatingly dissonant as those, characteristically, produced by highbrows "slumming it" in the neighbourhood of Low Culture. Despite some clumsy salsa steps towards the end of the Edinburgh show, from a pair of unprepossessing percussionists, Pink Martini segue from Portland to Paris, Classical to Cuban, Ravel's Bolero to Bossa Nova, Japan to Saint-Germain with ease, style and grace.

Oregon's cross-cultural commuters have patented Polyglot Pop. For future fashionistas, it's a forbidding act to follow.

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