By nature, there are very few instruments that are incompatible with electronic or dance music. Enterprising producers have found ways to make strings, flutes, acoustic guitar, tabla, kazoo, jaw harp, whistling and banjo work in the context of a beat-oriented tune, even if it sometimes takes a few tries to get the layers woven together just right. Yet something about the delicate and ethereal plucks of a harp seem out of place in electronic productions. This, after all, is the instrument of Joanna Newsom, an artist whose body of work is about as far removed as dance music as one can get. Yet, curiously, Pat Grossi, the sole member of Los Angeles-based electro dream pop outfit Active Child, has draped the bulk of his debut album You’re All I See with harp, and it works magnificently.
Admittedly, it’s a little misleading to label Active Child as a “dance” artist. Much of You Are All I See is tempered and slower paced, focusing more heavily on dreamy soundscapes than propulsive beats. The closest contemporary to Active Child’s heady, layered sound is that of M83, whose synth-based compositions often exist in a kind of beautifully disorienting ether. Likewise, Active Child balances shoegazer, new wave, R&B and pop balladry in a stunning blend that typically keeps its tempo under 100 bpm, but inevitably will move something within the listener.
The first two tracks on You Are All I See guarantee an absolute flooring on first listen, their lush and sensual beauty overflowing via tender tickles of harp and Grossi’s lovely falsetto. The title ballad is an absolute masterpiece, its gentle and fragile arrangement as impressive as Antony and the Johnsons’ most stunning songs, while “Hanging On” adds a bit more density and darkened mood, veering into thick dream pop territory wonderfully.
The downside to having two perfectly crafted songs at the front of the album leaves a lot to live up to, however, though even if not all the remaining eight tracks can compete, there are interesting moments throughout. “Playing House” takes on a sultry R&B grind, complete with Auto-tune effects, while the crashing drums of the soaring “See Thru Eyes” make for an intense moment. And the hypnotic “Ivy” offers a fleeting moment of instrumental grandeur, summed up in less than three minutes.
Countless moments on You Are All I See threaten to shatter for being so sensitive and refined. Yet it’s precisely that delicate grace that lends the album its awesome emotional power, which, unquestionably, is aided in large part by ample use of harp. Active Child’s brand of electronic balladry is overwhelming at times, but no matter which direction Grossi takes, everything on You Are All I See is designed to sound amazing.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.