Micah Pick - Brighter Than I Thought [Audiobulb - 2020]
Brighter Than I Thought is an album with two clear impulses, both foregrounded by the press sheet: firstly, it aims at creating heightened emotional states that ‘explore the surprise at finding unexpected joy even at our darkest moments when our worst fears are realized and facing the unique stresses of adulthood by retaining a sense of childlike joy,’ and secondly, it’s an album preoccupied with music technology and process. Thus Pick performs piano pieces, and processes them with a modular synth; the press sheet lists the entire set-up: ‘Mutable Ears, Reflex Liveloop, Mannequins W/, Pico dsp, 2hp Verb, Bastl Cinnamon, 2hp Pluck, Make Noise 0-coast, Ornament & Crime, Shakmat Modular Bishop’s Miscellany, Make Noise Function, and Make Noise Optomix. Tracked and mixed in Ableton Live.’
The emotional aspects of Brighter… are hard to tap into, for me. The piano playing is - beyond a few stray notes - melodic and unadventurous, following in the neo-classical tradition that I personally associate with post-post-rock releases. Whilst undoubtedly pretty and melancholy, the piano falls short of beauty, and runs the risk of being ‘inoffensive.’ Open Up the Sky features more frenetic playing, rather like cascading harp runs, but it never achieves any critical mass of movement. The processed piano is joined by field recordings throughout the album, the most notable of which are recordings of children playing and singing; though nothing is confirmed, it would be reasonable to assume these are Pick’s own children. These recordings will evoke different reactions; from Pick’s viewpoint they are surely sources of joy and parental love, however, I can’t experience them in that way and thus they simply signify ‘the sound of children’ to my ears.
The technological side of the album, the use of a piano as the sole source of all sounds, processed by a modular synth (actually two tracks also use synths as source instruments) is a gambit, a boast even, with which to impress the listener on a technical level. However, bearing in mind the vast array of sonic weaponry listed, there isn’t anything too startling on Brighter… Given that the pieces were performed in one take, the obvious tools to flesh out the sound are delays and loops, and Pick uses these to build a murky fog around the piano. Often the album’s sound makes clear nods to the artefacts of tape recordings, with echo, wow and flutter, and saturation. Indeed, despite the press sheet listing the equipment used, and thus making the entire process transparent, Brighter… does not overtly sound like an album revelling in flashy displays of technology. Curiously, it’s rather like a hi-tech version of a stereotypical no-fi instrumental album: recorded on a dictaphone, the kids wander in, the neighbour’s dog barks, the floorboards creak, cars pass by… Listened to casually, the album can easily become background music, but through headphones Pick’s details - certainly in terms of processing - are more clearly appreciated.
I try to avoid the ‘not my cup of tea’ angle, however… This is a ‘nice’ album, with the positive and negative connotations which that word carries, but it’s not designed for my ears. For me, Brighter Than I Thought borders on the sentimental, perhaps even slightly chocolate box; sonically this prettiness is tempered by the murk and disintegration of the modular processing, but the sound and tone of the album never really approach the emotional resonances that might indeed result from a piano and a dictaphone. The processing side of the album is generally quite restrained - beyond some savage shrieks on Joy as a Sword - and this is perhaps in its favour. Whilst the recordings of children don’t connect with me, they undoubtedly connect with Pick and his loved ones, making the album a special creation for them, and there are few better or more noble reasons to create any artwork.Martin P