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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1330

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Relative Sight: More Than One Life
by George Graham

( 1987-2 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/9/2003)

Ever since the 1960s, there have been periodic attempts to combine rock and classical music. Most often the efforts have tended to focus on and perhaps highlight the differences between them, emphasizing the novelty of the mixture, from the Beatles' use of a string quartet, to the art rockers of the 1970s, to more current efforts, such as Corky Seigel's Chamber Blues. The outcome is mixtures in which the two ingredients have remained disparate. This week we have a group for whom classical instruments and the contemporary singer-songwriter style are seamlessly integrated. They are a Philadelphia duo called Relative Sight, and their new second CD is called More Than One Life.

The two members of Relative Sight are Janet Taggert and Heidi Palalay. They met when both were studying classical music at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where they were roommates. And their choice of instruments would certainly have seemed to put them on a path toward a career in classical Music. Ms. Taggert plays the cello, and Ms. Palalay the oboe and English horn. In addition, Ms. Taggart also plays guitar, and Ms. Palalay the piano. But instead of forming a chamber music ensemble, the duo began writing folk-style songs and adding some impressive two-part vocal harmonies.

The result is an enchanting sound which moves easily between the classical influence of the cello and oboe and the lyrically thoughtful songs. Some of them quite are articulate and in the folk tradition, address social issues, including spousal abuse and reproductive rights. It's very pretty music that can carry a strong statement.

Over the last couple of years, Relative Sight has been attracting attention winning a finalist position in the 2001 Lilith Fair talent contest for the New York area, and gernering critical praise for their debut CD called General Housekeeping Tips, including from other artists such as the late Dave Carter.

On the new CD, the Relative Sight duo is joined on many tracks by additional players, including bassists Mike Fittipaldi and Doug Robinson, and percussionists Rob Tucker and Bill King, with the sound ranging from ethereal to intimate to rocky. Ms. Taggart is particularly versatile in the use of the cello, creating often unconventional arrangements.

Leading off is one of the more lyrically intriguing pieces, Lydia, by Ms. Taggart, whose words could be interpreted as being about a girl, an unwanted child, kept imprisoned in a house. The composer's cello dominates the sound. It's a striking piece. <<>>

Change Your Mind, also by Taggart, features a slightly more conventional sound, featuring the whole band, including Ms. Palalay's English horn. The lyrics of the fairly lengthy piece are rather self-explanatory, and no less articulate. <<>>

Ms. Taggart is heard on multiply overdubbed cellos on her composition Crumtown, a song about growing up in a seemingly uninteresting small town, but later being drawn back to it. <<>>

Ms. Palalay's composition Break the Cycle takes up the subject of abuse and battered women. The upbeat musical setting is deceptive, though the song is ultimately optimistic, as the protagonist moves to end the cycle of abuse. <<>>

Ms. Taggart set to music a poem by W.S. Merwyn. the song is called Native Trees, and it features Ms. Taggert on the piano in its appealing arrangement. <<>>

Another of the more fascinating pieces on the CD is Oliver Orange, also by Ms. Taggart, a kind of musical parable about ethnic diversity. An unexpected addition is the trombone played by one Dave Davies. <<>>

Perhaps the album's most provocative lyrics come on the song Dark Ages, ironically perhaps its most musically beautiful track. The song raises the specter of what would happen if the Supreme Court's landmark Roe vs. Wade decision were to be overturned, and there were a return to back-alley abortions. <<>>

The CD ends with two cover songs. One the old Roberta Flack hit Killing Me Softly, is about the only disappointment on the CD, since Relative Sight adds little to the song, when their distinctive instrumentation could have been more used more creatively. <<>> The other cover is a Leonard Cohen piece, Dance Me to the End of Love which is given an introspective treatment light-years from the sound of Cohen. <<>>

More Than One Life the new second CD by the Philadelphia-area duo Relative Sight is one of those rare recordings that really integrates classical instrumentation into a more contemporary context, in this case, the folk-influenced singer-songwriter genre. The cello and oboe are an essential part of their sound, and not just a style-mixing novelty. And regardless of their instrumentation, Janet Taggert and Heidi Palalay are outstanding singer-songwriters, creating interesting, and sometimes incisive lyrics for their distinctive sound. It's a very enjoyable album that can be appreciated on different levels, both musically and lyrically. And in both respects the duo are first rate, with the level of musicianship especially impressive.

Our grade for sound quality is an A. The mix by co-producer Will Russell, captures well the distinctive quality of the music, and adds just the right reverberant atmospheres. And the dynamic range of the recording is decent, which is increasingly a rarity these days.

One of the things that attracts me to musicians like Béla Fleck is that if you take away the unconventional instrumentation, you still have worthwhile and engaging compositions that would sound interesting if played by a regular rock band. The same can be said of Relative Sight. Though their classically-oriented instrumentation sets them apart, they have created worthwhile original music that could easily be played by others on more familiar pop-music instrumentation, without losing much. Relative Sight have created a definite sonic gem.

(c) Copyright 2003 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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