[LILITH POP] As the story’s told, Thomas Lauderdale rescued China Forbes from a singer-songwriter career 14 years ago to front Portland art-lounge outfit Pink Martini. A gazillion-selling albums later, it seems Forbes never lost her old dreams. Nor, troublingly, her old journals.
Pink Martini was never about the lyrics—perhaps the reason so many aren’t in English—but the platitudes of ’78, Forbes’ first solo effort since 1995’s Love Handle, clumsily grapple with maturity. Opener “When This Is Over,” doesn’t even muster the frisson of first kisses: “Got breakfast for dinner and walked home in a winter shower/ Does anyone notice I don’t answer any calls?” she sings, ultimately showing only the vacuity of relationships-by-numbers.
Her naif persona—a moonlit Eloise endlessly dreaming of dalliances with pan-cultural royalty—is much of what makes Pink Martini so winning. But, absent the sparkling Disney-cabaret backdrop, girlishness prevails. It’s not just the datedness that bothers: Forbes’ voice, so incandescent within la Martini, sounds utterly flattened behind coffeehouse guitar and soap-ad piano chords. Attempts toward soulfulness (speak-singing; that choked-up alt half-yodel) only diminish what makes her talent so distinct.
Telling, perhaps, that the title track’s prosaic rendering of her mother’s leaving for New York is the album’s best tune—small, poignant details lovingly rendered below Herb Alpert-ish horn riffs and cozy acoustic strumming. When inspired, Forbes can deliver a well-turned phrase with keen specificity. Other highlights include the Sheryl Crow New Wave of “Everybody Needs Somebody Now” and a far more effective version of Pink Martini’s “Hey Eugene.” Where the original suffered from the troupe’s helplessly DayGlo approach—gripes about a mutual flirtation’s subsequent non-call have no place within Lauderdale’s ephemeral confections—this conversational, acoustic version deserves to set every twentysomething old maid dancing ’round the kitchen in her sleeping pants.
For a collection of faux-romantic musings, perhaps it’s fitting that ‘78 only comes alive through aggrieved petulance. Fashionable melancholia seems Forbes’ singular emotion—not sure if she’s ever fallen in love, but gal knows how to work a pout.
SEE IT: Forbes celebrates the release of ’78 Thursday, Feb. 21, with Lael Alderman at the Doug Fir. 9 pm. $10. 21+.