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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1581

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Gillian Grassie: Serpentine
by George Graham

(independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/16/2009)

One usually associates the singer-songwriter with acoustic guitar as the instrument of choice. There are a fair number of piano-playing artists in the genre, but most stick with the folkie's standard equipment, the unplugged six-string. Lately, it seems as a part of a general trend toward wider eclecticism, more practitioners of other instruments are appearing. In this album review series we have had a couple of singer-songwriter-cello players -- Ben Sollee and Lindsay Mac, in the last year of so. There have also been fiddle-playing folkies, and a mandolinist. This week, we have a CD by a singer-songwriter harpist. Her name is Gillian ("Jillian") Grassie and her CD is called Serpentine.

Gillian Grassie is from the Philadelphia area and has a classical music background, studying both harp and voice. She spent her sophomore year in high school living in Switzerland, and while there, began writing songs. When she returned to the US, she decided to head onto the singer-songwriter scene in Philadelphia, rather than continue in the classical direction. In 2005, she released her debut recording, an EP called To an Unwitting Muse. She recorded her current independent release Serpentine in 2007, and after selling out the first pressing, is essentially re-releasing it, now working toward national distribution and promotion.

Ms. Grassie is a literate lyricist and appealing vocalist who uses her harp to supplement the songs on the CD, rather than approaching it as a recording of harp with voice. Her musical partner on Serpentine is Tim Sonnefeld who plays most of the other instruments, including guitars, keyboards, bass and drums by way of overdubbing. There are some other players, on strings and horns on a couple of tunes, but for the most part it's Ms. Grassie and Sonnefeld. And yet the sound is fairly full, with several of the tracks having a rocky edge. Her compositions run from love-songs of various moods to some less conventional topics such as a tribute to members of the military.

Ms. Grassie plays a Celtic-type harp, rather than the classical pedal-operated harp. But the sound is rather similar, when it's not given some sonic alteration, as is sometimes done of the CD. Given the uniqueness of her instrument in the style of music, it's surprising that the harp is not featured as often or as prominently as one might expect. But the music has a fair amount of sonic interest.

This fairly short, 37-minute CD opens with a piece called No Answer, an example of her harp not predominating. Instead it's a kind of pop arrangement for the song seemingly about unrequited love. <<>>

With the harp more audible is the following track Silken String, another love song, also with a kind of electronic pop flavor. <<>>

The horn section makes its appearance on Sweet Metallic, which she dedicates to the members of the military and to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. <<>>

One of the more lyrically distinctive songs is Tell Me, a kind of reminiscence of not always positive family memories. <<>>

So Funny is a kind of song about a less-than-perfect relationship that combines her harp with a more rock-oriented musical setting, which also features the string trio. <<>>

Another interesting song is Better or Worse whose lyrics consider a relationship in a pretty wide-ranging context, and whose musical arrangement is also rather eclectic. <<>>

There is a famous song by Fairport Convention called Tam Lin that takes place on Halloween involving witches and spells. Ms. Grassie also has a song called Tamlin that takes place on Halloween, but in this case at a costume party, with less supernatural consequences. <<>>

The CD closes with the track in which Ms. Grassie's harp is most prominent in the arrangement. Entitled The Train, it's a kind of confessional song in the early Joni Mitchell tradition. <<>>

Gillian Grassie's CD Serpentine is a creative and musically worthwhile recording by a the rare combination of a singer-songwriter and harpist. Her harp is perhaps a bit less prominent in the musical accompaniment than one might expect, given the distinctive quality of the instrument. And often the arrangements run more toward contemporary pop. The singer-songwriter aspect is emphasized more than the harpist, but the sound is there and adds an interesting texture throughout the recording. The production is heavy on the overdubbing, especially given that her co-producer Tim Sonnefeld played almost all of the rest of the instruments. But musically, it generally is well-done.

But for a sonic grade, we'll give the CD a C+. It's a poster-child for the all-too-frequent problem of excessive volume compression which kills the dynamic range of the recording and sucks all the life out of the harp and vocals in a badly misguided effort to make the CD super-loud on every single note.

Back in 2006 we reviewed a CD by another singer-songwriter harpist, Dee Carstensen, who took a jazzier approach, and also had a fine recording. Lugging a full-size harp around is not nearly as easy as dealing with an acoustic guitar, which might explain why there are not too many harp players among singer-songwriters. But it makes for a great sound, and the instrument opens up a lot of interesting possibilities, which Gillian Grassie explores on Serpentine.

(c) Copyright 2009 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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