[18 November 2008]
With her ethereal, swooning soprano, Inara George is a thus far underpraised indie-pop princess. The daughter of late Little Feat frontman Lowell George, Inara’s voice is a thing of understated beauty, best exhibited alongside Greg Kurstin’s synthy blips and buzzes with The Bird and The Bee. This bee’s latest hive, though, is a seismic leap from ambient electro-pop. In fact, An Invitation positions Inara George as a modern-day torch singer, with results both beguiling and befuddling.
Her co-conspirator (enabler, if you will) in this effort is Van Dyke Parks, her dad’s crony and a legendary arranger in his own right, with bloody hands in need of absolution for working with the ungodly grating Joanna Newsom. For this more palatable songstress, Parks remains strictly classicist, creating studied, elegant orchestrations for these songs of love and lust: a hearty, opulent mattress of violins and flutes inviting the singer to nestle in for the night. For all their beauty, Parks’ pristine compositions function mainly as singer’s backdrop, sometimes the singer’s playground.
This is, after all, a vocal album, and George’s voice elevates it above mere movie music. That voice is an alluring instrument, magnificent in its hushed restraint, devoid of the hiccuppy quirks that make Newsom and Kate Nash so unbearable. Her voice is calmingly sensual, but her lyrics are often subtly sexual. Just as often as she celebrates old-fashioned romance, she laments her sexual misgivings while simultaneously flaunting her sexuality. In fact, throughout Invitation, George is a mewing sex kitten gallivanting across the orchestra pit in search of love or, failing that, satisfaction. “When nobody’s here/ My eyes leave my body/ My sex stands beside me/ Just me and my dirty white bones”, she confesses on “Dirty White”, an erotic declaration. Coming from George’s pursed lips, even the banal image of “naked feet” sounds positively seductive.
George wisely keeps it ambiguous whether many of these come-ons are directed to a longtime lover or an ephemeral fling. She sings these murmured lullabies as though kneeling at your bed in a skimpy black nightie, waiting, begging for you to whisk her away into a dizzying whirlwind of amorous intimacy. Her lyrics are frugal, never telling what she could show, leaving plenty for those eager to read between the lines, for the hypnotic sea of strings and woodwinds to flesh out. The interplay between vocal and arrangement often conjures a conversational couple’s back-and-forth, as though the music is George’s truest muse, perhaps even the “you” she eagerly addresses. “Don’t Let It Get You” reprises the opening “Overture”, only this time George’s rising-and-falling inflections overshadow the repeated movements; the similarity demands multiple listens to unearth.
As affecting as these romantic lullabies and lovers’ concertos can be, there’s something unsettlingly traditionalist about the exercise. This is music played at posh dinner parties or champagne-at-the-fireplace nights inside the mansions of the upwardly mobile. An Invitation is not just classy; it’s bourgeois. And worse than that, it’s sporadically boring. When neither melody nor lyric engages, as on “Bomb” and “Right or Wrong”, the songs plod. The ultimate effect of this is a pleasant but slight album, a nice canvas for tonight’s dimly lit evening and just as easily forgotten tomorrow. It’s mood music that doesn’t outlast the mood, in part because this music feels like a throwback, a retro thrill that revisits but cannot recapture the magic of a bygone era. Wherever the new standards come from, it’s doubtful they will rehash the old standards. So An Invitation ends up an enjoyable enough one night stand, but hasn’t the legs for a durable relationship.