[14 March 2014]
PopMatters Assistant Editor
Pink Martini as an idea and Pink Martini in execution are two different things. The former is a daring concept: take a talented group of polyglots with an affinity for global music and throw them all together into a recording studio and tell them to not hold back. The songs that make up Pink Martini’s six studio LPs reflect the collective’s omnivorous musical proclivities. Hop genres nearly every song! Alternate between singing in English, French, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese! If nothing else, this group is more exuberant than most others working in the music business today, and its exuberance is met in equal amounts by its continually surprising repertoire of world music tropes. If one had to peg the band down in some way, it is fair to say that a decent enough majority of its discography can be reasonably classified as jazz; however, it hovers over rather than dives into that genre designation. Even those not keen on Pink Martini’s style—best summed up in the paradox of “elegant kitchen sink”—have to admit it’s hard to be bored with the music it makes. As Steve Horowitz put it in his review of Splendor in the Grass, the entourage’s fourth LP: “To call Pink Martini eclectic is like calling calculus complicated. Duh, that’s kind of the point.”
As executed, however, the results of Pink Martini’s approach are less admirable than its ambitions. The best thing one can buy if she is interested in the band’s music is 2011’s A Retrospective, which in over seventy minutes runs through the gamut of the strongest material coming from the five studio recordings that preceded it. Though long on its own terms, A Retrospective plays out like a self-contained global menagerie, and in doing so it becomes the definitive document of this moving target of a musical outfit. When looking at Pink Martini’s career disc by disc, however, the potpourri method it adopts becomes less successful. In a sense, it’s better to think of these records as compilation albums, as an overarching sense of continuity has never seemed to be on the agenda for these musicians. For some, this will be completely acceptable; after all, when one shoots with a shotgun, the spray’s bound to hit something. It often is the case, however, that an admittedly profound sense of daring doesn’t match up with its all-over-the-place results. The problem with throwing spaghetti at the walls to see what sticks is that a great deal of it doesn’t stick in the process.
Such is the case for Pink Martini’s latest venture, Dream a Little Dream, a collaboration with the Von Trapp family—yes, that Von Trapp family, the one responsible for the ubiquitous sound the hills are so alive with. Sofia, Melanie, Amanda, and August Von Trapp, the great-grandchildren of the famous Captain and Maria, join the globalized musical troupe for a predictably varied selection of songs. There’s a cover of a cover of a cover, “Kuroneko No Tango,” which manages to be sultry and Tim Burton-esque at the same time, a considerable feat for any band. The gorgeous vocal harmonies on the lullaby “In Stiller Nacht” (German for “Night in the Quiet”) provide a nice mid-album break. Sound of Music classic “Lonely Goatherd” gets a sprightly rendition, with all of the requisite yodeling performed with aplomb. Best of all is the title track, a reverie reminiscent of She & Him that mixes together Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” and the pop/jazz standard “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” Such simple ingenuity is a breath of fresh air when many of the tracks that surround it are driven by their complexity.
As a whole, however, Dream a Little Dream falls victim to the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none-itis, a common malady for a group willing to bite off as much as Pink Martini does. The album feels structured around the probability that the listener will only find one or a few songs out of the fifteen here. In covering as many bases as possible, this collaboration has risked sure footing. In some cases the same trick is repeated twice: the gospel-tinged “Rwanda nziza” offers up vocal harmonies similar to “In Stiller Nacht”. “Die Dorkfmusik” displays vocal filler patterns that “Lonely Goatherd” does much better. Rather than feeling like compelling genre integration, Dream a Little Dream as an album feels more like a dizzying smorgasbord. One would be forgiven if she suffered from a little sonic whiplash.
Yet, at the same time, if the cause of this unevenness is a genuine desire to push music in exciting directions, it’s hard to entirely fault Pink Martini or the Von Trapps. Twenty years and six studio LPs later, Pink Martini is still figuring out what exactly to do with the seemingly endless well of musical skill it has. With its individual members coming from such disparate directions, there’s bound to be a little traffic. Dream a Little Dream, then, may be a bit of a mess, but it’s an intriguing one nonetheless. Pink Martini has had a scattershot career, but if the intrigue is still alive, then it’s clear it’s still on to something.