Listening Notes: Pink Martini, Retro Reverence…

Musings on the strange state of elevator music

by Bryan Davis


Earlier this year I went to a Pink Martini show. A serendipitous moment whereby I had no real plans to go but was downtown in Durham, N.C., enjoying dinner out with my wife, and we decided to go for a walk toward the arts center. I was supposed to have been in DC that weekend for the Swervedriver concert but droves of public transportation-hoarding cherry blossom watchers had decided to buy up every last seat heading to Washington. I remembered that Pink Martini was playing here in town that night since a friend had told me that he would be going.

The concert had started a little after 8pm and we happened by the venue around 8:30. Wondering if we could get a discount ticket, we asked what was available—nothing under $33. Was it even possible to buy a ticket this late?

Apparently not; -but the lady at the box office surprised us by saying it would be free if we could get through the scanners in the next 30 seconds! So off we went; and before we knew it, we were getting led way down toward the good seats –around 20 rows back center orchestra. Our friends would be jealous.

Pink Martini perform in Durham, NC

Pink Martini perform in Durham, NC

I have been acquainted with this group for about ten years. And being a lover of martinis and lounge music, how could I not be pulled into orbit with a group thus named? My first impression of them back then, listening to the song “Sympathetique”, was that they were some kind of lounge-y throw back band that managed to hire a French Nico type singer, albeit one with better range.  But I discovered they are so much more.

Touring on the strength of their newest album “Hey Eugene”, the 8 piece crew found themselves in friendly Durham, NC, at the exquisite performing arts center. (-Should I mention too that it was perfect spring weather and a time when my mind turns to all things French? Oui. I blame this phenomenon on the Charlie Parker album entitled “With Strings.”)

The sound in this auditorium was flawless. And the audience was entertaining: lots of exotic creatures in the crowd draped in odd colors in order to show off tattoos in unexpected places, bored teens staring at their e-books, the old timers, the confused… and the die hard fans. Overall, the basic odd mix of people I’ve come to expect these days in the newly minted downtown whose brand new theatre sits in the shadow of the county jail…

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So there I was, enjoying myself at a Pink Martini show, and I could practically hear some of my distortion-loving friends: “Is this just another ‘retro-lounge = indie cool’ adult thing?” “Aren’t you that Chapel Hill drummer who used to pummel out a 17/8 beat while your guitarist screeched and made wolf howl noises?” This was your substitute for seeing the mighty Swervedriver?! Are you going soft?” 

But dude, seriously —why were you at a freakin elevator music show?!!” 

-Whatever. I have paid my dues at 1 am in smoky clubs watching bands thrash and sweat and scream over the course of several decades now. The discordant, the loud and the odd. Sometimes ‘normal’ traditional music is a good thing…

I actually did a lot of my music shopping in thrift stores and grew up listening to the great Herb Alpert. I have always been steered toward the record bins of unwanted vinyl which grew bigger over the decades as technology weeded out more and more unwanted stuff. My attraction over time has been drawn to beautiful album covers making claims of new advancements in sound circa 1950’s and 60’s —wall to wall stereo—visual sound stereo—stereophonic—Dynamic stereo—etc…

This attraction has allowed me to discover the likes of Esquivel and Cal Tjader, actual composers with original ideas and great compositions who were able to assemble disciplined musicians to carry out their dreams, all during one of the most fertile eras of western musical, cultural and technological times. And yes, lots of these records contained standards of by-gone eras and got shuffled off to the ranks of unlistenable elevator music; further ruined by television over-exposure with the likes of Lawrence Welk and Liberace —made to do righteous and unholy battle with shows like Dance fever and Soul train and Don Kirshner’s rock concert. Eventually peddled incessantly as beautiful music collections by the Candle light record company with so many bad TV commercials showing bell bottomed couples gazing into each other’s eyes by a fire place all in a soft focus dazzle of ridiculousness.

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So seeing Pink Martini live felt like a rare sight not often seen outside the realm of a TV late night talk show orchestra. Led by the charming piano player Tom Louderdale and singer China Forbes, the band presented each song along with an explanation of its origin and influence. This revealed their eclectic influences. We were treated to a duet lullaby sung in Chinese, a Schubert-sounding composition which turned out to be a play on an old disco tune, and another song written for a ketchup commercial (called “Hang on little tomato.”)

You might be tempted to make the mistake that this group is there only to back vocalist China Forbes, but each player also got a solo spotlight during the course of the show. The true star of the group however is pianist Tom Louderdale, who recently performed Gershwin’s Symphony in F with the Portland symphony orchestra to excellent reviews. His duet with the violin player during a purely classical moment in the evening was divine.

And while I recognize the urge for music fans to want to push all this type of stuff off as a bunch of pompous musical wankery, that would be a mistake. This group plays with true reverence to their musical genre(s). This is not a tongue in cheek wink and retro nod to the past. It’s also not the sort of moth to a flame rocked-out celebrity mess that Amy Winehouse flew into. It really is just as it presents itself, good music with a retro lounge feel, played in all seriousness to support the original ideas that the very talented musicians have. They are the kind of group that could back up any number of solo musicians and make them sound even better.

So what else to say—check these guys out. Relax once in a while and listen to what your stereo is doing. Play that vinyl album with the Hawaiian music and cheesy ocean sunset cover photo. Sit for a moment like your grandparents did in the not too distant, -and not yet jaded, past and listen to the sounds of the islands as they were interpreted by composers who visited there for the first time and tried to re-interpret Pacific Asian culture for our American ears. There is so much to discover in the sonic world that exists outside the present digital-only age. Orthophonic high fidelity stereo sound, anybody? As for me, I’ll be on the couch, immersed in listening…and sipping a cocktail. Aloha until next time!

-Bryan Davis

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