Patricia Barber has long been an enigma, blurring genre to the
point of isolation. Unlike her contemporaries, Barber writes
sophisticated tunes that fall somewhere between jazz standards and
angry female rock. Her words obtrude and grab listeners by force,
refusing to exist in the background.

Her latest release, A Fortnight in France, finds Barber
and her longstanding quartet stronger than ever, performing five
originals and five standards over a concert tour in France.
Accented are her terse piano playing and low raspy voice, one
reminiscent of an aged cabaret singer. In addition, as on past
albums, guitarist Neal Alger adds spacious backdrops to fill out
the sound.

“Gotcha” opens with a dark groove in which Barber
asks, “Did you ever think a piano / could fall on your
head?” The song maintains a funky bass line, while exploring
a dark world in which misfortune is just around the corner. By the
time Alger’s bluesy electric guitar solo concludes and the
listener arrives at a final chorus, Barber’s nearly whispered
words become all the more chilling: “Your girlfriend is
starting / to panic and steal / whatever’s left / of a small
piece / of a small pie / of a small man / with a much smaller
life.” The tune ends with a short fade-out.

The live feel of the recordings is fortunately limited to the
sparse clapping and talking between tunes. Barber does a remarkable
job of making each song seem personal, forging a bond between her
and the listener. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the
ballads, which constitute the majority of her non-compositions.
“Laura,” with Barber’s haunting voice and
drifting piano, is beautifully understated. The majority of the
tune is filled with sparse solo acoustic guitar. The Beatles’
“Norwegian Wood” begins with light open piano arpeggios
and a crisp vocal interpretation. The tune then builds from a bass
solo to an upbeat bed of activity. Barber’s piano solo is
technically limited, but what she can’t play in technique she
makes up for with fresh, invigorated ideas. In addition, the
aggressive drumming keeps the momentum flowing throughout.

There really aren’t any dull moments on this outing. From
the passionate French original “Dansons La Gigue!” to
the bizarre samba cabaret-style cover “Call Me,” the
Patricia Barber quartet is always creating art that can only be
described as bold and daring. This release finds Barber continuing
to push the envelope, sharing with us her inspired performance in
France.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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