Verb or noun, certainly energy-laden as a word, Smash, Patricia Barber’s latest record is an outside sort of album, the energy inherent rather than overt. The singer/pianist is among street lights and car headlights on the cover, and touching the paving stones of a deserted, night-time city street inside. Barber, as long time fans will of course know, is also of the outside. Her first for Concord, the dozen songs contrast highly with one of her best albums to date, the sublime Ovid-inspired Mythologies from 2006, with the added advantage of not having to live up to a grand conceptual scheme. Rather than concern herself with myth, instead she immerses herself in real-time life, the here and now using images of the seasons and natural elements as a backdrop.
With her band of guitarist John Kregor (whose big power rock solo on the title track is a defining moment), bassist Larry Kohut, and drummer Jon Deitemyer behind her vocals and piano parts, they made Smash in Chicago with Barber producing. A city she’s strongly identified with, especially at the Green Mill club, the title track’s lyrics conjuring noise ‘the sound/Of a heart breaking’, ‘the sound of/The red on the road’. It’s not despairing though as a whole, just real, and devices like the bossa feel scaled down on ‘Redshift’ let the anger Barber sometimes boils up evaporate yet however it’s contained a sentiment such as ‘by degrees I see/You are leaving me’ is cold comfort. The piano opening to ‘Spring Song’ ‘talks’ Bill Evans a bit, and Kohut could even be channelling Eddie Gomez to his side, a fitting approach given the song. First impressions are of a strong return here by Barber. A deep album, not a precious one, nor one to act as a balm, or to make you “feel good”. You would find it hard to discover a singer in this idiom, and certainly you’d search long and hard in rock or pop, to find lyrics as freighted with meaning as here. They’re not about home truths, Barber is beyond delivering crap homilies. Yet her voice is both a prisoner to the song, as well as its keeper: a unique burden. Highlight? I’d go for ‘Missing’, a love song of impossible inspiration framed within the cycle of the seasons, with its drifting guitar and the utterly unique Barber voice. SG
Patricia Barber, above. Photo: Jimmy Katz