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Patricia Barber: The Premonition Years: 1994-2002

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It was as if a skylark had swallowed a bassoon that first moment singer/pianist Patricia Barber opened her mouth: a blues-hooting, nervously flitting bird with smartly semantic wiseacre lyrics beating her own drum vocally and rhythmically. Forget that her poorly titled albums seemed to signal some ersatz beat revivalism. Hers was a thoroughly modern listen whether tackling the classics or crafting bold new tunes low and slowly. And, OK, there was a hint of the beatnik chick chic to her-the dark hair framing a sunglass-filled face, the smoky bar brand of small-band arrangements, the algebraic Aesop-sopped texts.

Barber’s not dead. Mythologies came in 2006 and was a character-acted-out affair based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Guggenheim fellowship and all. But before that searing song cycle, Barber made five records for Premonition (1994’s Cafe Blue, ’98’s Modern Cool, ’99’s Companion, 2000’s Nightclub, 2002’s Verse), celebrated in this box in three categories: “pop song,” “standards” and “originals.”

Premonition is where she learned to fly.

Languid and sensual without the dread of cornball sentimentality lingering through her stylistic variations, hers was and is a dry jazzy élan comparable to Joni Mitchell (the sultriest parts of Hejira) and David Sylvian (his holy “Orpheus”). Maybe Barber’s a baroque cabaret answer to what would happen if Chris Connor and Nico had a baby. With all that, hers is a wholly unique vibe; a dusky musicality and odd métier that allows her deconstructionist takes on sexy “pop” songs a gray sensuality. Her organ-wheezing cover of Bill Withers’ slinky “Use Me” is creepier than Peter Lorre. Her threadbare, finger-snapping take on Tom Jones’ haughty “She’s a Lady” is distant and transient. In all cases, Barber removes these hits from their usual romanticism.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t passion to be found. Her acoustic-guitar-strung-out version of “A Taste of Honey” is warmly inviting while remaining mysterious. That sense of invitation is made greater when Barber’s “standards” present an octave-higher sense of play and premonition. “I Fall in Love Too Easily” and “Bye Bye Blackbird” give her clear cranky piano lines a chance to out themselves. Her voice follows in slightly giddier order, toying with each word as if to go beyond the lyrical chilliness she finds in her “pop” selections. In essence, jazz and Tin Pan Alley war her a bit.

But not so much as to thaw her holiday hauteur. “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” ain’t a believable myth when she shushes and slushes her baritone through that snow job. This leaves her calculated unsteady “originals” like the unnervingly chatty “Company” and the stretched-out noir prose and sleazy cowbell click of “Touch of Trash.” On “Trash” there’s one perfect line-among dozens of quotables in her catalog-that announces all that Barber is: “Orchestration and precision/The girl works harder than you.”