Ancient stories get to be that way (ancient) because they communicate universal truths that resound with all human beings in all eras, but also because they are entertaining. Such is the case with "Metamorphoses," Ovid’s epic poem that dates from around the time of the birth of Christ and includes the immortal tales of Daphne (transformed into a laurel tree to save her from a libidinous Apollo), Pyramus and Thisbe (the original star-fated lovers), Perseus (whose adventures explain several noteworthy terrestrial and celestial features) and Arachne (of spider fame). Being metaphorical doesn’t lessen the profundity of the tales’ truths - metaphor, in fact, is often the only way to get at some truths - and their entertainment value is inestimable, having inspired as many of the Western world’s great works of art as any piece of literature.
With her new, much anticipated song-cycle Mythologies, pianist-composer Patricia Barber becomes the latest artist to fall under the sway of these enchanting tales of enchantment. Borrowing characters from Ovid’s tales, Barber seeks to offer contemporary takes on the man who fell in love with his own creation (Pygmalion), he who flew too close to the sun (Icarus), she who is responsible for our three (or more) months of winter (Persephone), and that vain demigod who fell in love with his own reflection (Narcissus).
It’s an interesting idea, a great hook to hang a set on, and it inspires some excellent music. Barber’s piano playing on "Pygmalion" is as beautiful as anything I’ve heard from her. Neal Alger, the guitarist in her long-standing quartet, plays some thrilling solos on "Hunger," "Icarus" and especially "Orpheus." Guest saxophonist Jim Gailloreto illuminates "The Moon" and "Morpheus." Often, the band achieves a sound that bring to mind Joni Mitchell’s all-star "Shadows and Light" session - her amazing live disc from 1980 featuring Jaco Pastorius, Michael Brecker, Don Alias, Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays - though toward the end of the album the addition of the vocal ensemble Choral Thunder and several other singers adds some nice new colors and shades to Barber’s palette.
By the last couple tracks, those new colors are more than welcome, which is one of criticisms of the album. After the first few listening, I had dismissed "Mythologies" as monotonous and monochromatic. I found the mood of each track too repetitive. Later, sitting and listening more closely, I changed my mind: there is quite a bit of variety, including some real fire as well as some drop-dead gorgeous songs, and the tracks move nicely from one to the next. It’s just Barber’s voice that tends toward monotone. She’s a remarkable pianist and a deft composer, but her vocal range - at least on Mythologies - is limited and kind of cold. The addition of Choral Thunder, then, adds a lot of warmth.
But it may be too late by the time they chime in, given some of the lyrics. While much of Mythologies reads well on the page as poems, it sounds less natural when sung. "Wan and pale,"" she sings on "Hunger," "I court emaciation in high style and endless mastication." It’s kind of witty, but it also feels forced and awkward. The recitation by some young hip hop artists of various threatened and endangered species, in "Phaethon," just didn’t work for me.
A certain amount of high-minded intellect (or, depending on how you look at it, pretension) can be forgiven - these are art songs written by a Guggenheim fellow, after all, not Brittney Spears - but, if the lyrics fail to resonate, the music is compromised and the entertainment factor suffers. And timeless subject matter alone is not enough to guarantee a place in the firmament.