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Generally Recognized As True: Two new solo piano CDs: Mark Pinkus's "Touching" and Laura Sullivan's "Close to Home"

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Two new solo piano CDs: Mark Pinkus's "Touching" and Laura Sullivan's "Close to Home"

Once in awhile, I go and pick up some independent music from CD Baby. I've found quite a few good CDs there over the years. In this case, I found one great and one not so great, although they were both by independent artists that I'm already familiar with

Mark Pinkus - Touching

I have all of Mark Pinkus's CDs and like every one of them quite a bit. His new CD, "Touching", isn't an exception to this -- I like it very much. As far as I know, they are all original compositions. Some of the tracks remind you a bit of Kevin Kern, but with one important difference -- they never fall into clichés, which Kern's music often does. When you think you know where a melody is going, it usually doesn't go there, and to me (and perhaps many) this is important: if I can remember a song, it just plays over and over again in my head until I'm sick of it. When the details aren't memorable, it's more likely to be timeless. There's some obvious classical influence in his work, too -- some complexity and sense of long-term construction of a song as opposed to the song that has a moving window of attention of about 15-30 seconds. This further separates him from the wishy-washy new age stuff that he'll probably still be associated with due to a lack of a better mainstream description.

I first heard Mark's music with the first track of his "Quiet Place" CD (now renamed to "Simplicity") some years ago and I was looking forward to hearing something new from him, because it's been awhile! There are a number of things that "work" with his music: first of all, he isn't afraid to make short songs if they nothing longer is justified and so nothing is longer than it needs to be; second, as I said above, he doesn't fall into clichés and there is no lazy composing involved; finally, he clearly knows how he wants the piano to be recorded because it is a very rich-sounding solo piano recording.

So, this is an excellent CD and I think I'll be listening to it a lot!

Laura Sullivan - Close to Home

I'll start off by saying that I didn't like this CD very much. I first heard Laura Sullivan with her "Mystical America" CD which is still one of my favourite solo piano CDs by any artist: there is some truly great original music there with excellent atmosphere that is cohesive across all of the tracks on the album, and all of the non-piano elements such as the synthesizer pads to fill in some of the space work together very well. "Bighorn Medicine Wheel" from that album would be on my list of favorite solo piano tracks. The album that preceded "Mystical America" ("Pianoscapes") was also good.

But, since these albums, I haven't really enjoyed anything she's done. The previous CD was bland and introduced dreamy vocals that interfered with the piano, and this latest CD, "Close to Home" is made up of arrangements of traditional songs. But, none of the arrangements are as good or better than those that I've heard elsewhere. If you're going to do "Scarborough Fair" on piano then I think it has to be something really special because it has been done so many times before, but here it's just average and thin. The second track, "She Moved Through The Fair" is an obvious attempt at an Enya clone that isn't as good as Enya (mostly due to production values and not artist talent, though) and sounds a bit like a spectre is loose in the room. I don't understand why you'd want to emulate something that already exists if you're not going to try and be better than what you emulate.

Another problem with this CD is that the recording is not very good. The piano is flat and bland -- it has none of the body that Mark Pinkus's CD above has. I'm a bit worried that this is a mixing and engineering problem -- an amateur mixer, maybe? -- and that the piano quality was sacrificed to make room for the vocals and other elements which, to a fan of relatively uncluttered solo piano, detract from the experience to begin with. One of the numerous reasons I like Tori Amos, for example, is that she knows how she wants to record a piano -- the recording quality is masterful on her CDs. There doesn't seem to be much respect for the piano on "Close to Home", though if you're listening to it on an MP3 player or in the elevator then you probably won't notice.

I mentioned clichés in my Mark Pinkus review above, and though there are no piano clichés here , there are a lot of vocal clichés. They're the type that Sarah Brightman often makes that grate against your nerves a bit but are tolerable when the voice is otherwise impressive as in Sarah's case, but on this CD the voice is masked with effects and bathroom reverb to hide the fact that it isn't that impressive.

So, for now, I'm hoping that Laura Sullivan will one day put something together to rival "Mystical America", and I'll keep waiting. But I'll probably be more hesitant about buying the next CD, having not been too enthusiastic about the last two.

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