The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, September 11, 2006
THE MYTH OF PATRICIA BARBER

I kept hearing the name Patricia Barber in various hidden places, and there was a review of her new album in Friday’s Guardian which sounded arresting enough to make me want to investigate further – you see, section editor, you can persuade readers to listen to music if you don’t treat them like retarded five-year-olds. An Ovidian concept album about Mythologies? It has to be better than bleating Beyoncé (truly, soul as timesheet) extending her charge card limit for a further three dreary years.

I asked about her on ILM and most respondents pointed me in the direction of her piano playing above and beyond her singing, but then ILM isn’t really there to be trusted unless I’m writing about Pick Of The Pops. The album was there, downstairs in HMV, but priced £16.99 (inexplicably the US wing of Music From EMI do not have me on their mailing list for hot new Patricia Barber platters, despite my never having mentioned her previously on my blog and not knowing anything about her) and I knew I could do better than that; Ray’s Jazz Shop came up trumps with a far more reasonable price of £12.75 – no loss-leading perpetual HMV Sales to bankroll, you see – and what’s more they were playing the Brotherhood of Breath as I walked in (“Kongi’s March,” the Bremen To Bridgwater version) so that had to be a good sign.

What really swung it for me, though, was the recollection of one of Morley’s old OMM columns where he despairs at The X-Factor and lists a long procession of voices to whom he’d urgently have to listen again, straight after the programme, to remind himself that there was such a thing as singing, and among the names there, in between Wyatt and Cat Power, was Patricia Barber. So I had to give her a chance. To complete the circle and also break the chain, I played Mythologies while watching Saturday’s X-Factor, on mute; listening to Barber breathing avidly about Morpheus and Persephone and especially Narcissus (“Can I woo her through the looking glass/This refraction of light I see?”) while watching what appeared to be an unbroken string of failures; a stream of glum and hurt faces, a would-be Girls Aloud destined to be forever Girls Hushed, a greasy pair of ageing sideburns which hadn’t yet heard the news about Buddy Holly (and the inevitable jump-suited Elvis impersonator which always makes me re-evaluate the comparative merits of euthanasia), all the while listening to this deep and smoking but benevolent female voice, stroking my speakers and caressing my ears, telling me that it doesn’t have to be Like That.

Disappointingly there isn’t much evidence of Barber’s pianistic skills on Mythologies other than a rather dazzling and mesmerising run at the beginning of track one, “The Moon” (“But tonight there won’t be light/’Cause I can’t shine without you”); thereafter she concentrates on singing and leaves most of the solo work to guitarist Neal Alger, who wanders through Barber’s fields of nettle in an agreeable Bill Frisell-ish way. So I guess I’ll have to trawl through the back catalogue for her piano; what this leaves Mythologies sounding like is a caffeine-filled, quarter to one in the morning Joni Mitchell circa Shadows And Light (no bad thing) with a seasoning of Annette Peacock sauce. The production is sparse in an expensive, echoing sort of Tate Modern way; Barber is pictured on the rear of the CD in side profile, smiling ruefully out of the corner of her left eye, and in the CD booklet clutching her brow and throat rather theatrically. What this means is that Barber is For Adults Only; there are no shots of Patricia goofily grinning and whooping it up, reclining in the arms of four bemused sailors as per the new Christina Aguilera album. Which is fine by me; when 90% of 2006 pop makes you feel that you’re too old for this shit, even if you were six, it’s refreshing to listen to grown-ups (and of course, the corporate five-year-old market culture makes no allowances for the genuine and beneficial childishness of Broken Social Scene and we know the rest) because being an adult and listening to adult music isn’t interchangeable with being condemned to fifty years of “Fly Like A Fucking Eagle.”

The concept only derives in part from Ovid (“Morpheus,” “Phaeton,” “Persephone”) but Barber uses the myths to sing about the world as it burns now; so “Icarus” says a rueful but hard-edged goodbye to Nina Simone; “Whiteworld/Oedipus” in particular is a sweetly damning indictment of the whole Sting/Timberlake let’s-swan-around-the-Third-World-like-we’re-Dick-Diver syndrome and how it invariably and inevitably contributes to sackings, pillages, bombings and massacres – it should be heard in tandem with “White Tongues” off the new Fun’Da’Mental album; and more about the latter very soon – while the closing duologue of “Phaeton” and “The Hours” uses children’s choirs and hip hop breaks observes from the Moon’s distance the world’s final incineration (another parallel with All Is War). “The Hours” in particular is masterly; a melancholy whole-tone doo wop piano cycles across ticking (bomb) rhythms, like the Flamingos covering Robert Wyatt, Barber’s voice sounding uncannily (as it does elsewhere, e.g. “Orpheus”) like Billy MacKenzie – those same swooping dives and settlements of rubati, asking for “just one more day” but recognising that it is all in vain, as a choir enters to herald the wave which will submerge all (“You will endure/Long after we are gone/And these hearts and this wave/Will break”), closing the album with the repeated question, “Who’ll save us now?” Meanwhile, on the TV screen, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? comes on, and as ever I dream to myself: just make the most of the life we have – that’s how people and dreams are saved.


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