5 out of 10: Classy, yet too clever by half
It ain’t New York or San Francisco hipsters in the United States head to these days, it’s Portland, Oregon. Not surprisingly, then, Pink Martini were formed in this haven of environmental progressiveness and liberal values by multilingual, multiethnic, socially-conscious Harvard graduates originally from somewhere else and became the hipster band par excellence.
On Splendor in the Grass, Pink Martini follow the same trail they blazed on earlier albums and mix elements of lounge, latin, pop, jazz, Bacharach and cabaret into a palatable whole. The eleven-piece band cover all bases with aplomb, professionally jumping from genre to genre from song to song. The mostly-instrumental Ohayoo Ohio — the pick of the bunch — showcases their skill, the latin groove and dynamic interplay between melodic and rhythmic elements reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s finest work.
Sadly, such tasty musicianship too often takes a backseat to bland singing. Much of the music leaves room for the vocals to take charge, but China Forbes, who’s the primary singer on the album, sings plainly, cloyingly and without vigour. The singing is dull enough when Forbes sings in English, but when certain songs have her singing in Neapolitan, Italian, French or Spanish, her accent imbues the songs with a grating inauthenticity that has one wishing Pink Martini would just play instead of attempting to impress us with their worldly outlook.
Pink Martini try to do too much and never sound as good as the real thing despite their musicianship. This is put into stark relief when Pink Martini call on Chavela Vargas, the legendary ninety-year-old Mexican ranchera singer who was once Frida Kahlo’s lover, to sing on a well-arranged cover of the classic Piensa en Mi. Vargas does a heart-breakingly good job — too good in fact, because she ends up demonstrating exactly what the rest of the album lacks: sincerity, heart, conviction.