Album Reviews

Active Child – You Are All I See

(Vagrant) UK release date: 22 August 2011

Active Child is altogether a different musical experience. A project of LA musician Pat Grossi, You Are All I See aims to be “cosmically huge, yet intimate”. Those who saw the recent White Lies tour will already have been drawn by his compelling live appearances, and will have an idea of what to expect from the album. The former choir boy’s religious musical upbringing has clearly influenced his approach to music, which on this record is an all-enveloping, immersive experience, rather than something to be appreciated from afar. The result is compelling.

The eponymous opener ripples with harps, brushed with Grossi’s ethereal falsetto and mesmerising yet understated harmonies. Immediately of note is that Grossi can really do something many others have been vacuously (and falsely) credited with – his intricate construction involves the listener on a deep level and takes them to another place. It is nigh on impossible not to become involved in the otherworldly, laid-back gentleness of the sound.

This isn’t just beautiful with harps. ‘Beautiful with harps’ normally means something folky and old-fashioned – though there are certainly nods to ages past peppered throughout the record, the achingly gorgeous, almost ecclesiastical male alto on Johnny Belinda, or the hauntingly fragile vocal tones weaved into a chanted refrain of High Priestess being cases in point. What sets this apart is something inventive and futuristic about Grossi’s composition.

New single Playing House, with its uncompromising lyrics (“just because it feels good, that don’t make it good for anybody”) sounds like a soul singer who’s wandered into a hall of mirrors, threatened throughout by an ominous bass drone. Meanwhile, Shield And Sword is driven by digging bass and rattling, shuffling clicks, which add an edge to the usual ethereality. Drumming single-note patterns slide in and out of focus – this song feels like it’s in surround sound, circling you, waiting for the strike.

There are jerky moments – art like this is allowed a few teething problems in the first album, after all. Breathy, off-beat Hanging On is pretty disconcerting to listen to. The vocals of the verses don’t quite sit with the rhythms underneath. That said, the space-age hum of synth blends seamlessly into the folkier tones of harp and voice in a well-measured, anachronistic cocktail, and the White Sea remix which features on certain versions of the album is a nice addition – stripping out the harp and bringing out the bass and stark percussion to tease out a bleakness from the hypnotic lightness of the original. Elsewhere, the staccato, distorted vocals on Ancient Eye seem maybe a step too far. This is definitely music for a limited range of occasions – certainly not background music, its nature makes the chinks in its armour even more disconcerting than they otherwise would be.

Way Too Fast, though, is the jewel in the album’s crown. The howling chorus is alarming when it slides into the minimal setup, before growing into a beautiful refrain supported by warm bass. This is the musical equivalent of watching a sunset, and it’s impossible to ignore. You Are All I See may be surreal and even hard work at times, but this is a work of sheer beauty whose contours are worth exploring in depth.

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Active Child – You Are All I See

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