Carrying a chill that could freeze a martini glass and a clipped elegance worthy of Noël Coward in a leather bar, Patricia Barber’s unique voice—and her brand of ever-so-slightly twisted cabaret—has guided her through the Chicago blues and jazz clubs of her beginnings, as well as the rarefied world of museum grants and gallery shows with projects such as a song cycle based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses and art-song pairings with opera diva Renée Fleming.
By comparison with compositional experiments like those, Clique and its collection of disparate covers could seem like a throwaway for Barber. But from its Sensurround production (in Digital eXtreme Definition by Jim Anderson and Ulrike Schwarz) to its sympathetic, intuitive musicianship (her quartet and its elastic rhythm section seem to know just when to halt, buck, and pluck), this album is as deliciously offbeat as any of her magnetic all-original displays.
Talking her way through the intro to Stevie Wonder’s “All in Love Is Fair,” Barber considers the heartbreaking coin-toss consequences of romance with stillness. Once warmed to the dance of chance, she begins to sing-whisper in time with drummer Jon Deitemyer’s brushes, and the brief affair is both stately and pensively erotic. Both Lerner & Loewe’s “I Could Have Danced All Night” and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Shall We Dance?” have their own peculiar brands of timing and pulsation (blame, in part, Barber’s longtime bassist Patrick Mulcahy) through which Barber insinuates her vocals like a particularly bracing bit of theatrical subtext. At first you might not catch every line of “dialogue”; then, 20 minutes later, it’s become gnawingly essential. The same thing is true of Billy Page’s finger-snapping ode to hipness (or insecurity, take your pick), “The In Crowd.” Barber picks up on its less confident elements, finds a lost and isolated character to inhabit, and plays this venerated insider’s club, or clique, like one she wouldn’t dare join if it would stoop so low as to have her for a member.
That said, the listener will want in on every aspect of Patricia Barber’s gamesmanship.