By Paul T. Mueller
Here’s the recipe Jim Bianco used for his latest album, Cookie Cutter: Send out the same 69-question questionnaire to each of 17 people, collect the answers, and write songs based on those answers. The resulting 18-song album (one song has two versions) proves that, musically speaking, Jim Bianco is quite a chef.
A New York native now living in California, Bianco has produced several albums of distinctive and well-crafted adult pop. Cookie Cutter is no exception. Each song starts with some background – imagined messages on answering machines, re-created phone conversations, slide-show narration and such – revealing some of the details the song is based on. The questions, printed on the inside of the CD cover, cover a wide range of topics: “What’s your name? Where do you live? Do you have any pets? Any tattoos? What was your first car?” And so on.
Taking a little literary license along the way, Bianco turned those answers into a batch of excellent songs, performed in a variety of musical styles. The opener, “Apache,” features a jazzy Latin-tinged arrangement powered by horns. It’s nominally about a woman’s dog that ran away, but it ends up being about much more than that. In “Kilpatrick Man,” Bianco spins some facts about a man’s life and work, provided by the man’s brother, into a believable Irish ballad. “Blue Subaru,” written for a fan’s two young nieces, starts out as a bouncy, repetitive ditty with nonsensical lyrics – and then evolves into a complex and beautiful arrangement that would have sounded at home on Sgt. Pepper.
Bianco has a gift for writing about melancholy and heartbreak, and many of the songs explore serious subjects such as romantic troubles, medical problems and loneliness. But it wouldn’t be a Jim Bianco album without at least one funny song full of double entendres, and on Cookie Cutter that song is “That’s What She Said.” Bianco even throws in a twist by faking a serious beginning before downshifting into several verses of goofy, synthesizer-driven pseudo-rap.
Cookie Cutter succeeds as a songwriting exercise, but this collection is strong enough to stand on its own, even without the backstory.
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