[THE PIANO INFLATES] Good piano balladeers are hard to find these days. Though squealing synthesizers pimple a guitar-riddled indie-music landscape, acoustic pianos are markedly less popular. But piano—and fine piano playing—is so central to Johanna Kunin's sound that she recorded that melodic backbone of her new Hidden Systems LP at one studio (Seattle's Other Room) and constructed everything else with Portland's Skyler Norwood at his Miracle Lake Studios.
That dual-studio approach doesn't hurt the beautiful-sounding disc's cohesiveness. In fact, it creates a blueprint for Kunin, the Seattle-to-Portland transplant who adopted the Bright Archer moniker for her second full-length release. Nine of the new disc's 11 songs lead with dreamy, echoing piano lines, then add Kunin's vocals, then guest instrumentation from members of Loch Lomond; Point Juncture, WA; and Kunin's other band, Velella Velella, among others. If anything, that structure grows a little weary at the end of the disc, though Kunin still manages a huge breadth of tone, from sprawling opener "Featherweight," with its blistering drum fills, to the jazzy, start-and-stop "Road" (which reminds more than a little of Vince Guaraldi's tunes from the Peanuts specials). Even the downest of down-tempo numbers manage surprising midtune dynamics (see the title track's skittering hi-hat and the unexpected synth-and-clarinet pairing on "Underground"). Hidden Systems refuses easy, emotionally exploitative chord progressions for something a bit more ambiguous and challenging—a testament to both Kunin's songwriting and Norwood's studio prowess.
Piano is nice and all, but an entire album of piano and vocals—even Kunin's sharp, fearless vocals and her abstract, if slightly hippie-dippy, lyrical couplets—would get a little sleepy. So it's a good thing the piano ballad is such a rarity: The mathy piano, guitar, French horn and viola ballad is a lot more interesting.
SEE IT: Bright Archer plays The Woods on Thursday, June 2, with Basia Bulat and Vikesh Kapoor. 9 pm. $10. 21+.