Patricia Kaas: Piano Bar

Jason Thompson

Patricia Kaas

Piano Bar

Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 2002-05-28
UK Release Date: Available as import

If you do happen to remember Nick the Lounge Singer, you'll recall that he was one of Bill Murray's best-loved and most enduring characters during his stint on Saturday Night Live. Nick had various last names throughout his career, but one constant always remained: the man knew how to throw down some seriously cheesy renditions of current and past pop music favorites. He even took the theme to Star Wars when that series' very first movie was taking over the world and turned it into his own tour de force of cocktail lounge pathos during one of Nick's unforgettable performances. In essence, Nick was absolutely everything that was reviled in a lounge singer. He butchered the classics while trying to inject his own spin on them and thereby getting his voice heard and more dates booked at the local version of the Howard Johnson.

With that in mind, it seems that French chanteuse Patricia Kaas is following in Nick's footsteps. Her latest release Piano Bar is everything one could possibly imagine when the phrase "bad lounge music" is bandied about, and also everything that one might assume went along with "bad French music" as well. Not to say all French music is bad. Not at all. But Kaas has a way of making all of these songs sound like the background music to any typical romantic art house flick or TV commercial that wants to throw in a musical essence of France without actually going all the way. Seductive and slow, with a lot of la-la-las and da-da-das thrown out in a way to almost make the listener point at their stereos and shout, "Ooh! That's French!", Piano Bar is a genre exercise that Kaas could probably sleepwalk through.

That it sounds mainly like incidental movie muzak should come as no surprise when one learns that this entire album was "inspired by the movie of Claude Lelouch, And Now . . . Ladies & Gentlemen" which stars Kaas and Jeremy Irons. But it is not the soundtrack to the film. No, this is like the album Madonna made when she was in that miserable flop Dick Tracy called I'm Breathless and sported the hit "Vogue". But even that album's cheesy splendor and faux genre workouts scale larger heights than the morphine-enveloped excitement levels that arise on Piano Bar.

I have to say I can't recall the last time I was so thoroughly irritated by hearing an album. There have been bad albums this writer has had to sit through and report on, but Piano Bar hit an entirely different nerve. It's not a bad album. The music is elegant, the production by Robin Millar is sterling. But Kaas's delivery is so smug and demure that it made me want to rip my hair out on occasion. Not even French hipsters Air and Telepopmusik have released something this fakey Francais. Ooh la la.

Those annoying da-da-das open up the first track, "My Man (Mon homme)" whose sentiments are way too cloying, even for this kind of album. Kaas sings "Oh my man / I love him so / He'll never know / All my life is just despair / But I don't care / When he takes me in his arms / The world is bright / All right". Four people, including Albert Willemetz and Jacques Charles, wrote this tune. One hopes that all the effort was put into the music. And Kaas sings it as if she's unconcerned, knowing that the paycheck is going to come at the end of the session.

It's that same detached performance that she injects into all the songs here. I understand that a lot of these tunes are slow burners and meant to be sultry, but at times even the worst songs can be turned into lost treasure in the right hands. But Kaas simply sounds like she's playing up the "French chanteuse" part without putting forth any strong effort. The label wanted her name, they got it, and she showed up to record the album and clock out so it would seem. That she can turn something such as "If You Go Away", a Jacques Brel tune, into such bland by the numbers paste is telling. Even her take on Pierre Barouh and Francis Lai's "Un Homme et Une Femme" sounds like it was phoned in.

It's often been said that French songs, when translated to English, often sound silly and lose a lot of their romantic qualities (take "La Vie En Rose" for example).This may have been the problem that plagued "My Man" and its moon-June-spoon qualities. But it doesn't clear Kaas of her forgettable performances on strictly French fare such as "Les Moulins de Mon Coeur", or the French and English take of "Autumn Leaves". One begins to want to beg Kaas to simply open up on these songs and emote above a whisper. But Piano Bar is simply too laid-back and unfortunately that boils down to turning into a stereotypical lounge experience.

Hearing this album reminded me of listening to Michael Feinstein and his various slaughterings of favorite old standards by Ira Gershwin or Cole Porter. The guy has always simply tried too hard to charm the pants off of everyone, and has very well succeeded, though his delivery always seems insincere and more of a look at me exposition. Same goes for Patricia Kaas on Piano Bar. The music plays and Kaas coos in her breathy way, wooing you in French and English, but you know you've heard better the whole time she does. The album certainly won't hurt her career, and her fans will probably enjoy this one, but the whole thing feels like an afterthought.

At least when Nick sang "Stairway To Heaven", it still perked peoples' ears up.

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