Active Child, “You Are All I See” (Vagrant Records)
3.4 out of 5
For an instrument with such a rich history, it seems odd that the harp is largely absent from contemporary pop music. While Joanna Newsom uses the instrument regularly and PJ Harvey has flirted with the autoharp, the instrument remains a rare sight on the indie-pop/rock touring circuit. Pat Grossi is looking to change that. Performing under the moniker, Active Child, the L.A. based artist is a harpist and former choir singer who performs a rather unique blend of baroque synth-pop and post-dubstep experimental R&B. While that may sound like a bubbles and squeak musical description, Grossi’s sound isn’t far removed from the works of James Blake (who Grossi recently opened for), Antony & the Johnsons and even Bat for Lashes. Following the success of 2010’s Curtis Lane EP, Grossi’s debut LP, You Are All I See, finds the artist picking-up much where the EP left off, only on a grander and more ambitious scale.
Aside from his accomplished harp playing, Grossi’s greatest asset is his impressive falsetto. His formidable vocal range never sounds thin or syrupy and brings a lush, at times, ethereal tone to You Are All I See. For someone who allegedly does the bulk of his recording in his bedroom, his heavily reverberated vocals are more akin to something one might hear in a vast and empty cathedral than a home studio. This is immediately apparent on the album opener and title track. “You Are All I See” is a mesmerizing blend of delayed harp arpeggios, synth washes and Grossi’s, frankly, angelic voice. It’s an impressive opener. So impressive in fact it’s a tough act to follow. The hooky R&B flavoured chorus of “Hanging On” and the simply stunning “High Priestess” come close but, by the record’s second half, Grossi starts to run-out of steam and ideas. “Ivy” is a pleasant enough instrumental, yet is a little too 80’s soft rock for it’s own good. While “Way Too Fast” at 5:16 is way too long and meanders without ever really getting anywhere. Then there’s the interesting choice of “Playing House”. Featuring vocals from Tom Krell of the R&B project, How To Dress Well, the track is the most heavily James Blake influenced moment on the record. Stealing a page from Blake’s experimental R&B playbook, the track works well as a single, yet, in the context of the more baroque synth-pop moments on the record, it feels out of place and, with the auto-claps and distinctly 80’s synth measures, a tad gimmicky.
Despite the weak mid-section, You Are All I See bounces back on closing track “Johnny Belinda”. According to Grossi, the track was inspired by many late nights watching Turner Classic Movies on mute. Take that as you will, but here all of the record’s elements fuse perfectly. Grossi’s voice and harp are given an additional dose of urgency due to the accompanying string treatments, which swell beautifully around the 2:50 mark before giving way to a beautifully restrained outro.
While Grossi’s arrangements are often grandiose and enveloping, his lyrical content doesn’t operate on the same level as his musicality. With a voice like Grossi’s this is certainly forgivable, however the huge, at times near operatic arrangements only highlight Grossi’s lyrical shortcomings. Although his harp playing and layered vocals on “Hanging On” are impressive, the arrangement is compromised with lines such as: “tell me if you feel this pain, cause I don’t want to be a ball and chain”. While the first person narrative certainly keeps the record intimate, it’s not enough to bring the music the gravity it deserves. Still, despite the album’s weaknesses there are some truly compelling moments here, and I doubt you’ll hear fans of Grossi’s EP complaining. While far from a perfect debut, there’s certainly enough moments to hold one’s attention from cover to cover and, of course, there’s always that beautiful harp.
You can stream “You Are All I See” in its entirety here
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