Friday, April 1, 2011

Not Mischievous Enough For Me: Jill Barber's Mischievous Moon

By the time you read this, chances are I will have been clubbed over the head with a Vinyl CafĂ© mug, my hands and feet bound and my unconscious body stuffed into a trunk. When I come to, I’ll find myself in a seemingly abandoned warehouse, which serves as a re-education facility funded by the Canada Council for the Arts. What I’m about to declare is extremely dangerous, contentious, and down-right scandalous: I just don’t understand the appeal of Jill Barber. For this sweet, beautiful, and talented singer has converted everybody to her quivering coos. Everyone but me. Unfortunately her latest album, Mischievous Moon, has failed to change my mind.

Originally based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the popular singer-songwriter now calls Vancouver, B.C. home. Barber first broke into the music scene in 2002 with her debut album A Note To Follow So. An EP, Oh Heart, was then released in 2004. For All Time followed in 2006. Her folksy sound, her signature warbly voice, and (very) mellow acoustics caught the attention of the industry, which nominated her for both the East Coast Music Awards – she took home two in 2007 including Female Artist of the Year - and the Juno Awards. In 2008, Jill released her prolific endeavor, Chances, abandoning the coffee shop folk scene and replacing it with old-fashioned, jazz tinged, romantic melodies. Mischievous Moon (like Chances) also includes collaborations with its producer, Les Cooper, as well as a track co-written with legend Ron Sexsmith.

She has all of the right qualities: a unique gravely voice, indie appeal, an appearance on Sesame Street, collaborations with Ron Sexsmith, a penchant for music of the 30s, 40s and 50s. She’s got it all, so why do I suffer through involuntary twitches whenever an otherwise courteous host tells me “I just have to listen to Jill Barber” at her otherwise pleasant dinner party? The voice, described by many as “beguiling” to others is down right irritating to me. Ironically, I usually navigate toward the gravely and the unconventional sounds (like, say, Tom Waits), but there is just something earnest and uninspired here. The trouble, however, doesn't just end with the voice.

When revisiting her previous albums, I do admit that Chances did have some impressive pieces; particularly the catchy blues inspired “Oh My My.” Mischeivous Moon, however, does not possess any such gems. The disc opens with its solid title track, well done, but a little too vanilla. Then it runs into some trouble. “Took Me By Surprise” borders on fromage both lyrically, with awkward “la, la, la” refrains, and almost embarrassing too-retro percussions. “Tell Me,” the album’s first single, seems somehow out of place, listless, and just uncomfortable. “Daydreamin’,” “If It Weren’t For Loving You,” and “Lullaby” were so lyrically and instrumentally slow and sluggish it took mellow to the next level: a coma.

Of course, my argument is not that I find Jill Barber objectively horrible. I do recognize the songwriting expertise and impressive ability to capture a genre so eloquently. “A Wish Under My Pillow,” which includes the Good Lovelies in the background, was happy and sweet. (And who doesn’t love a whistle solo?) Mischievious Moon possesses an extremely interesting mix of instrumentals and the compositions are generally succinct and very true to their genre. If one wants filler while they chill out, it could possibly work. Actively listening, however, takes too much effort and the album possesses no greater depth for me than cocktail music.

Prior to this review, I spent a substantial amount of time and effort scouring the Internet to see if a kindred spirit existed, alas, I am very much alone. While I feel as though I’m being bored to death by a chain-smoking goat, the rest of the world is being seduced by the best thing to happen to music since Edith Piaf. There's an old saying for this: Each to their own.

Laura Warner is a librarian, researcher and aspiring writer living in Toronto. She is currently based in the Canadian Broadcasting Centre’s Music Library.


  1. I agree. You're not alone. Jill is just one of many on the Canadian scene whos voice sounds like an artifact already. A lot of pretending taken as the real thing too much nowadays.

  2. I have always been a huge Jill Barber fan. She might sound like a goat at times; nevertheless it's a much-needed diversion from all the pretty voices coming from pretty faces.

    JB had a lot to live up to after Chances, and I concur that Mischievous Moon may not have delivered. In JB’s defense, the album is vanilla, but isn’t vanilla the most under-rated flavor? Sometimes we DO just need music to be background music so we can be alone with our thoughts. I think Mischievous Moon is the perfect album to think to.

  3. i agree - don't worry, you're not alone. fake. forced. fabricated. would rather listen to the real thing from that era.

  4. I'm glad to be reading this. Jill's music is trite to the max. Her new album more than ever. The lyrics are just filler... like she just plugs in every catch phrase associated with that era she's trying to evoke. Plus, all this talk of "timelessness" when she's really pointing to a very specific time and place; one that has been popularly emulated all over the place for years now. But she's not doing it very well. This sounds like elevator music. Her lyrics have always been syrupy, but this new album doesn't even have much of that going for it anymore. She just doesn't ring true! Never has, for me.

  5. You are definitely not alone Laura! The first time I heard her on the CBC I thought Sarah Harmer had put out a new record. Now she's taken the same approach with another genre; and as with her earlier albums, it's again trying to copy not create. I grew up listening to my Dad's Billy Holiday Lps and he always spoke of her life and how you could hear that in her music. I feel you can hear Jill's life in her music too, but unfortunately it's just not as interesting as her predecessors...

  6. I though that For All Time was her best album. The songs were genuine, lovely, and strange. But this latest album is absolutely contrived. She's made commercial success her priority. So, the songs are salable--- great for background music--- but simply don't hold their as art.

  7. Edith Piaf and Ella Fitzgerald? JB is a good impersonator, but beyond that, her music is lacking any real spirit.

  8. Jill Barber does not sing so much as "bleat"

  9. what a very entertaining review. you are hilarious. sincerely. I mean that.

    my thoughts on Barber: I'm really picky. most of what I hear by most artists I do not like.

    2 songs on this album are so awesome, I don't really have words to express such awesome-osity (see, there's the word problem, I had to make one up). any fool....and took me by.......are 2 of the greatest songs ever (of course IMHO).
    they are expressions of love and joy. energetic and sweet and pretty and whatever..I really like them alot. daydreamin' is ok. a lot of the rest of it is not my cup of tea.

    Laura, listen to the first 2 songs I mentioned again with an open mind.

  10. Thanks for stating the truth. Too many reviewers are afraid to say what they really think. I listened to this cd twice to make sure I didn't miss anything before dropping it off at the local goodwill for some tone deaf bargain hunter to find.

  11. Dear Anonymous from December 18th,

    Thank you for your comments. (In fact thank you to everyone for their comments.)

    I will give the first two songs another listen. Now that a year has past, perhaps my mind has opened. :-)

    Warm regards,


    1. hey Laura,

      I am anonymous from December 18th. (most people call me Charlie.)
      have you listened to any fool can fall in love and took me by surprise again?

  12. I am a Laura, too, and hate Jill Barber's music. It's very forced... her sound is so obviously manufactured. She seems like a wannabe.
    Actually, I thought the song on the Dodge commercial was performed by Britney Spears, which should tell you how much it sucks (I'm the person who can always identify the faceless narrators in movies/shows).
    And, yeah, I don't like Norah Jones either bitches! LOL
    I think Madeleine Peyroux is the only good one who can pull off the "era" thing.

  13. I guess I'm arriving late to the party... just been re-familiarizing myself with Jill Barber after reading so many good reviews. Thank you for validating my sanity. Musical placidity to the nth degree leaves you with a jouney-less and emotive-less experience. On a side note, I find BookButterfly's inadvertently backhanded compliments freakin' hilarious! She seeks a "diversion from all the pretty voices." LOL... She continues, "but isn’t vanilla the most under-rated flavor? If by "most under-rated," she means "most popular," that would be true. And lastly, she claims that we need this "background music so we can be alone with our thoughts." I prefer silence when trying to be alone with my thoughts, but she draws an interesting parallel between Jill Barber and silence. Nothing against BookButterfly... seems very nice... just one of the funniest reviews I've ever read.

  14. You are not alone.

    She does forced nostalgia...and does it poorly.

    I went to a Jill Barber concert 2 years ago on the recommendation of a friend. We're still friends but we don't speak of that mistake.

  15. I hate Jill Barber's music too. I also hate having to see her boring interview during the trailers whenever I go to the Cineplex theatres. She has no personality whatsoever. I hate how these insipid Canadian "artists" are forced on us when we live here. Those stupid, archaic Canadian content rules are ruining this country.

  16. Oh I'm so glad I found you! I'm looking at the date and thinking maybe this was a 5 year old April fool's joke. Every time Jill Barber gets radio play, my husband has to engage me in deescallation. Her singing reminds me of the desperate children make when their spirits are crushed when they don't get their way. In other words, pathetic. I'm usually I opinionated and kind, but it might only take one more "tell me" to break me. We all could be spared this torture. I've wondered if partner Grant Lawrence is part of the reason we continue to be subject to her.

  17. I love this post. I too hate hearing Jill Barber on the radio. Now, she's gone and put out a record of Americana covers! Can this woman please just stop copying everything that has already been done just for the sake of money? Why would I want to listen to Jill sing a Neil Young song? Seriously, this is too much. She calls herself an artist when she is basically a karaoke singer who should take her phony act to Vegas. All bells and whistle. Unfortunately the CBC is all over this crap.