Monday, April 23, 2012

Jill Barber's time-traveling lounge pop

Posted By on 04.23.12 at 02:10 PM

Jill Barber
  • Jill Barber
On the recent Mischievous Moon (Outside Music)—a compilation of songs from two previous releases—Canadian retro-lounge singer Jill Barber practically fetishizes the past, surveying a variety of postwar and prerock pop styles, dressing up like a 50s Hollywood starlet, and using a blatantly retro design for the package. So originality is kind of an irrelevant consideration when it comes to evaluating her music. While I do have some trouble with Barber's nostalgic aesthetic (she was born in 1980), she's a terrific singer, and more important, she cowrote every song on the album (including two with pop craftsman Ron Sexsmith). And most of those melodies would sound just fine minus the retro signifiers—the only obvious exception is the cutesy trifle "A Wish Under My Pillow."

Of course an album that sounded like this could never have existed in the 50s or 60s, because Barber borrows from so many different styles and eras. She's kind of a hybrid of Peggy Lee, Blossom Dearie, Connie Francis, and Edith Piaf. "Never Quit Loving You" uses the shape and structure of a 50s R&B ballad, with quasi-doo-wop backing vocals by the Sojourners, and "Took Me By Surprise" rides on a gentle bossa nova groove, but most the songs harken back to white-bread Americana and the tidied-up suburbanized versions of subversive urban sounds. About half use elaborate arrangements, larded with sweet, clinging strings, but all of them go down easy. Barber has a lovely, precise voice that fits perfectly with the music, and she pulls off this time-travel exercise with such panache that I'd really like to hear her do something less dated sounding. Below you can hear "Old Flame," one of the tunes written with Sexsmith, who croons alongside her on the chorus. Barber plays Schubas on Tuesday night.

Jill Barber, "Old Flame"

photo: Ivan Otis

Today's playlist:

Clifford Jordan Quartet, Spellbound (Riverside/OJC)
Matching Mole, March (Cuneiform)
Lee Konitz, Insight (Jazzwerkstatt)
Mwenda Wa Bayeke, African Guitar Legend (Rounder)
EKG, No Sign (Sedimental)

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