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Heather Kropf: Chrysalis
by George Graham
(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/29/2015)
I have lost count of the number of times I have talked about the wide stylistic range that the singer-songwriter genre encompasses – everything from classic guitar-strumming folkies to artists who write for and and record their music in an orchestral setting, from energetic electric rock to contemplative almost new-age oriented.
While the great majority of the performing singer-songwriters on the scene use a guitar as their main instrument and compose with it, there are those who work from the keyboard. And when songs are written from a keyboard perspective they frequently provide an interesting musical texture, as an alternative to the folkie.
This week we have a new release by a talented Pittsburgh area pianist-singer-songwriter who brings in that different sonic and musical quality, often hinting at jazz. It’s Heather Kropf, and her new fourth full-length album is called Chrysalis.
Ms. Kropf has an interesting background. She was born in the Portland, Oregon, area, and when she was young, her missionary parents moved to Jamaica for a few years, then to Indiana, where she stayed through her college education with a degree in fine arts. As she was growing up, her parents did not play rock-oriented music in their home, so Ms. Kropf was raised on a diet of jazz, folk and classical. Not surprisingly, she took a classical direction in her piano studies. In her teens, though, she started writing original music, influenced by people like Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Sting.
Her interest in music took her in an distinctive direction, working at a Public Radio station in Pittsburgh, first as an intern and then assistant music director at WYEP. She went on to perform in various venues around Pittsburgh and then more widely, as an opening act for other perhaps better-known folkies. She released her first full-length album called Sky in 2000, and followed that with full CDs in 2005 and 2009, with some EPs and appearances on compilation albums along the way.
Chrysalis continues her inviting, musically sophisticated sound, with a fine voice, clear and largely free of vibrato. She is joined by a somewhat variable group which features a different sound for the different tracks on the album. Some are acoustic and piano oriented, and others more electric. The sound can get jazzy at times with an acoustic bass played in the jazz style, plus compositions in less-common time signatures like 6- and 12-beat rhythms. The arrangements, though sometimes eclectic, are generally understated and tasteful. The group is usually small on each track, but there are a couple of left-field instruments that turn up from time to time, like vibes and a steel guitar, playing country style in a jazzy folk setting. Among the regular supporting musicians on the album are Jeff Berman on the vibes and additional keyboards, Chris Parker on both drums and electric guitar, Randall Venturini on electric bass and Jeff Grubs on acoustic bass, plus a number of backing vocalists.
Ms. Kropf is an articulate lyricist, usually writing about that age-old subject for thousands of songs, personal relationships, but the subject and mood ranges from reflective to a near-protest song.
Leading off is a track called Ghost in My House, which seems to be about a significant other who is in a band and comes in at odd hours thus not allowing much time to be together. It has a nice laid-back groove, not the kind of thing one would expect from a singer-songwriter doing this kind of lyrical line. <<>>
Somewhat more upbeat is a piece called Out of Our Atmosphere. It’s one of the tracks with the interesting compositional touches that sets Ms. Kropf’s music apart from the classic singer-songwriter. <<>>
One can hear Ms. Kropfs’ Joni Mitchell influence at times on Mile Marker, which is nothing to complain about. It’s quite tastefully done. <<>>
One of the more musically interesting pieces is Rain Quilt with its somewhat atmospheric sound including a jazzy vibes and a country-ish steel guitar. <<>>
One track that especially highlights Ms. Kropf’s outstanding clear, pitch-perfect voice is Want You Back whose title is self-explanatory on the lyrical subject matter. With its acoustic bass and slow 6/8 time it has a decidedly jazzy texture. <<>>
Old House Show is about the folkiest sounding piece on the album, with the acoustic guitar at the instrumental center rather than the piano. Lyrically, it’s a nice set of reminiscences. <<>>
Poison in the Water is another of the distinctive tracks on the album for its combination of creative ingredients. It’s in an interesting mostly 12-beat rhythm while the lyrics could be interpreted a kind of environmental protest song, about polluting waters for money, which presumably could refer to the fracking controversy.
Heather Kropf’s her new album Chrysalis is an impressive recording from a Pittsburgh-based artist who brings an interesting approach to the singer-songwriter genre. She’s got a great voice, and weaves in some fairly sophisticated musical ingredients, performing on piano, compared to the usual guitar-strumming folkie. Her band is a sympathetic one and the arrangements tasteful, though I do think that the steel guitar could have been used a bit more sparingly.
The CD gets a rare grade “A” from me for sound quality. The sound is clean and natural, with the vocals quite inviting. Even the acoustic bass sound has a nice ambient quality to it. And in what is extremely rare in these days of hyper-compressed balls-to-the-wall cranked up sound, this recording has a decent dynamic range.
The cynic might be tempted to say, “Just what we need, another singer-songwriter record.” But the musical format has proved to be ever durable and with a combination of creativity and musical skill and taste, the result can still be something distinctive and musically edifying.
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