One of the more difficult tasks for a critic today is just to be one. So much of arts criticism now has turned into a form of consumer reporting making it more difficult to find contrary views that are intelligent and nuanced. Consumer reporting is the easy road for a number of reasons. First of all, the critic doesn't have to be smart, have any ideas, or thoughts, just provide a thumb that can go up or down. Editors and producers are therefore relieved housing a consumer reporter because their reviewer won't say anything that will draw heat from above and threatening everybody's job security. They also won't say anything that will offend advertisers who perhaps pay the publication's bills. Over the years, the line between criticism and consumer reporting has blurred to the point that when someone does go against the grain of popular wisdom, it stirs up discussion.
Hence, we have this wonderful specimen of criticism from Laura Warner on singer Jill Barber's latest CD. Barber being a huge favourite at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (where Laura Warner works) made the task at hand a little delicate for the writer. Nevertheless, with some encouragement from her editors, she wrote one of our best pieces which did indeed start a lively debate. Which is exactly what criticism is supposed to do.
By the time you read this, chances are I will have been clubbed over the head with a Vinyl Café mug, my hands and feet bound and my unconscious body stuffed into a trunk. When I come to, I’ll find myself in a seemingly abandoned warehouse, which serves as a re-education facility funded by the Canada Council for the Arts. What I’m about to declare is extremely dangerous, contentious, and down-right scandalous: I just don’t understand the appeal of Jill Barber. For this sweet, beautiful, and talented singer has converted everybody to her quivering coos. Everyone but me. Unfortunately her latest album, Mischievous Moon, has failed to change my mind.
Originally based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the popular singer-songwriter now calls Vancouver, B.C. home. Barber first broke into the music scene in 2002 with her debut album A Note To Follow So. An EP, Oh Heart, was then released in 2004. For All Time followed in 2006. Her folksy sound, her signature warbly voice, and (very) mellow acoustics caught the attention of the industry, which nominated her for both the East Coast Music Awards – she took home two in 2007 including Female Artist of the Year - and the Juno Awards. In 2008, Jill released her prolific endeavor, Chances, abandoning the coffee shop folk scene and replacing it with old-fashioned, jazz tinged, romantic melodies. Mischievous Moon (like Chances) also includes collaborations with its producer, Les Cooper, as well as a track co-written with legend Ron Sexsmith.
She has all of the right qualities: a unique gravely voice, indie appeal, an appearance on Sesame Street, collaborations with Ron Sexsmith, a penchant for music of the 30s, 40s and 50s. She’s got it all, so why do I suffer through involuntary twitches whenever an otherwise courteous host tells me “I just have to listen to Jill Barber” at her otherwise pleasant dinner party? The voice, described by many as “beguiling” to others is down right irritating to me. Ironically, I usually navigate toward the gravely and the unconventional sounds (like, say, Tom Waits), but there is just something earnest and uninspired here. The trouble, however, doesn't just end with the voice.
When revisiting her previous albums, I do admit that Chances did have some impressive pieces; particularly the catchy blues inspired “Oh My My.” Mischeivous Moon, however, does not possess any such gems. The disc opens with its solid title track, well done, but a little too vanilla. Then it runs into some trouble. “Took Me By Surprise” borders on fromage both lyrically, with awkward “la, la, la” refrains, and almost embarrassing too-retro percussions. “Tell Me,” the album’s first single, seems somehow out of place, listless, and just uncomfortable. “Daydreamin’,” “If It Weren’t For Loving You,” and “Lullaby” were so lyrically and instrumentally slow and sluggish it took mellow to the next level: a coma.
Of course, my argument is not that I find Jill Barber objectively horrible. I do recognize the songwriting expertise and impressive ability to capture a genre so eloquently. “A Wish Under My Pillow,” which includes the Good Lovelies in the background, was happy and sweet. (And who doesn’t love a whistle solo?) Mischievious Moon possesses an extremely interesting mix of instrumentals and the compositions are generally succinct and very true to their genre. If one wants filler while they chill out, it could possibly work. Actively listening, however, takes too much effort and the album possesses no greater depth for me than cocktail music.
Prior to this review, I spent a substantial amount of time and effort scouring the Internet to see if a kindred spirit existed, alas, I am very much alone. While I feel as though I’m being bored to death by a chain-smoking goat, the rest of the world is being seduced by the best thing to happen to music since Edith Piaf. There's an old saying for this: Each to their own.