October 21st, 2009 | by Local Cut Music | Posted In: Columns

Workin’ Hard For The Money

     
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WW examines Portland orchestral pop act Pink Martini—by the numbers.


IMAGE: Sherri Diteman
by Ben Waterhouse


While Portlanders are quick to gloat over the indie successes of bands like the Decemberists, the Thermals and Menomena, we sometimes forget that Portland’s most ubiquitous band, Pink Martini, is one of the biggest success stories in the history of indie music. The band’s first, self-released album, Sympathique, has sold nearly a million copies to date, and both its subsequent records hit at least three figures.

Pink Martini’s fourth release, Splendor in the Grass, hits stores Tuesday, and it’s safe to bet it will be the top-selling album at Amazon.com from day one—as of Oct. 15 it was already No. 25. It’s good news for Thomas Lauderdale, his band and the city where they spend their money—we’re awfully lucky to have them, really—but the music itself on the new disc is a bit of a bore.

Splendor in the Grass is named for a 1961 Elia Kazan film, and the record is accordingly reminiscent of the music of the early ’60s. It kicks off with a couple of slow rumbas, meanders through some folk-pop, dallies with a cha-cha or two. Then it throws in a pair of light jazz ballads, a Herb Alpert tribute and a surf-rock number (in Italian), closing with a big-band ode to New York City. These are mostly laid-back tunes, suitable for the last dance at Rick’s Café Américain or a particularly classy elevator.

With the exceptions of a Squirrel Nut Zippers-style swing piece (“But Now I’m Back,” with vocals by NPR reporter Ari Shapiro) and a beautiful, mournful ballad with 90-year-old Mexican singer Chavela Vargas (“Piensa en Mi”), these songs lack the urgent energy of the band’s first two releases. While the arrangements and instrumentation are as skilled as ever, the drive to dance is absent, with focus shifted from the beat to the melody and­—worryingly—lyrics. Pink Martini singer China Forbes’ voice is lovely, but not interesting enough to be the center of the music for the majority of an album, and writing has never been the band’s strong point. Let’s hope the next disc throws some instrumentals back into the mix.

But, despite all that, we have no doubt the album will sell like tiny hats at a bike messenger conference. The numbers would make Colin Meloy faint. What kind of numbers? Well, since you asked....


Martini Math


Years in existence: 15
Members: 12
Albums released: 4 (a fifth, live album is due in 2010)
Debut albums sold: at least 975,000
Albums sold: at least 2,025,000
Copies of Sympathique sold in France: Over 50,000
Albums sold to Srgjan Kerim, former president of the United Nations General Assembly: 30
Concerts in France: 91
Languages in which Forbes sings: 15
Continents visited: 5
Largest audience: 17,376 at the Hollywood Bowl (three nights in a row)
Ticket price for 1999 New Year’s Eve show at Union Station: 100
Amount raised for charity at 2006 Crystal Ballroom benefit shows: $84,324

Willamette Week on...

Sympathique: 1997 “An almost inexplicable success.” —Richard Martin

Hang On Little Tomato: 2004 “True pan-ethnic cavalcade.” —Jay Horton

Hey Eugene!: 2007 “Not so much diverse as all-encompassing, a joyous display of idiomatic facilities that channels multi-ethnic inspirations as smoothly as vocalist China Forbes changes tongues.” —Jay Horton

Splendor in the Grass: 2009 “Suitable for the last dance at Rick’s Café Américain or a particularly classy elevator.” —Ben Waterhouse

SEE IT: Pink Martini releases Splendor in the Grass on Monday, Oct. 26, at the Crystal Ballroom. 8:30 pm. $30-$40 advance. All ages.

 
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