Indie pop singer-songwriter Heather Kropf is a veteran of the Pittsburgh music scene, with her first record, Sky, dropping in 2000. On Friday, May 19th, her latest effort, the eight-track album Lights, will premiere, capped off with a release show at The Funhouse at Mr. Smalls. In a departure from her previous self-produced work, she recruited both a producer (Lex Price) and several instrumentalists with impressive resumes to record with her in Nashville. The results are often gorgeous—but occasionally underwhelming.
There’s no question that Lights contains moments of brilliance in various forms (such as poignant lyrics, honey-dipped vocals, haunting piano riffs and beautifully-toned guitars.) But taken as a whole, the record feels a bit flat. The shifts in energy are subtle at best, ranging from straight-up mournful tracks like “Ghost Town” to the lightly travelling “Dream of Dreams.” As pretty and well-mixed as everything undeniably is, after the first few songs with little to no sonic variation, and without the sense of exploring new-yet-relevant territory, I found myself becoming bored. It’s not that it’s not good. It’s just not that exciting.
I can appreciate an artist who does one thing well, but artists who can branch out and show off different strengths are the ones who really win me over. A high-energy song here, a slower one there; a guitar-heavy track here, a stronger focus on the rhythm section there; something poppier alongside something more experimental. There’s a way to do this while remaining true to your individual style. Kropf might have switched up her approach to recording on Lights, but the songs themselves are so similar-sounding that they get a bit muddled, weakening the potential impact of each one.
I say all this knowing that a piano-based singer-songwriter is going to be more limited in her options for variety than a full band. But I’m also reminded of well-known artists like Sara Bareilles, and smaller ones like Nashville resident Jess Nolan, who do manage to mix things up behind the keys, to great effect. (Example: Bareilles’ breakout hit “Love Song” and the upbeat track “Morningside” exist on the same album as the sparser, lovely ballads “Gravity” and “City.”) I kept waiting for compelling contrasts such as these to appear, for the record to ride the crests and troughs of a wave. And aside from very brief, occasional spurts of energy in the instrumental sections, that didn’t happen.
While the songs themselves were a little too uniform, the lyrical content had the opposite problem. There were some lines that blew me away, such as this one from the lead single, “Seven Times:” “Many times, you run from the things that matter most to you/It’s a way to leave without walking out the door/It’s a way to stay without offering more.” Or this part of “Winter Sun:” “You always gave me these beautiful and useless things/They feel like luxuries.” When Kropf is good, she is evocatively, poignantly good. And the vocals she wraps them in are always soft and beautiful.
But there are moments when clichés pop up, ideas seem a bit disjointed, or the phrasing comes across as awkward. Describing a light as “brighter than a thousand suns” as she does in “Big Love” is surprisingly hackneyed for such an experienced writer. Kropf also inserts a one-off commentary on police brutality into “Ghost Town:” “And the world keeps tearing itself apart/Wildfire and broken hearts/And the boys with their arms up in the air/saying ‘Don’t shoot, don’t shoot.’” I’m all for this important issue being written about, but not as a brief aside in a track that primarily addresses the very personal sense of loss and hopelessness that an abandoned relationship leaves on the speaker’s environment. It’s jarring and it takes me out of the moment. These ideas would have worked better separately.
Pretty, immersive layers of keys and guitar shone on both “Big Love” and “Winter Sun.” But the subjects and phrases she chooses to focus on lyrically were less alluring. In the former, she repeats the nostalgic line “I leave the light on for you” more than any other. That seems to be a central idea, and it’s a song-worthy one—so why is it not the title? “Big love” is clunky and strange, too descriptive and too vague at the same time. It’s odd to notice such a potential-laden subject, and then have the singer choose to place their focus elsewhere.
I’m not one to knock hometown pride, either (go Pens), but “Winter Sun”’s repeated references to the “lights on Kennywood, in the distance” seemed like an out-of-place reference for such a spare, sad song. They could serve as a contrast to the speaker’s melancholy feelings; but for me, that connecting thread wasn’t there, and it just came off as choppy. And while “your eyes” might be one of the most commonly-used phrases in songwriting (right behind any iteration of the word “tonight”), her decision to replace it with “the eyes of you” in “Love Light” sacrifices smoothness for originality. In this case, not the best trade-off.
These occasional missteps stand out more against the times when Kropf gets it really, really right—like when she describes the ghost town as having “timber bones and bricks for skin,” or when sustained, reverb-heavy guitar strums shimmer in the opening track. The attention to detail in the production is obvious, and each instrumental part is captivating. With a little more consistency in the words (and a little less in the sounds), this record would truly shine.
If you know and love Heather Kropf, or the slow gorgeousness of well-layered, piano-led pop ballads, you’ll find plenty to like on Lights. But that genre isn’t your first pick, I’d recommend checking it out a track or two at a time, starting with “The Good Road,” “Dream of Dreams,” and “Keep On Walking.” Especially if you’re heading out on a stroll on a misty or rainy morning—these songs are fitting soundtracks for those quiet, thoughtful moments.
The album drops on Bandcamp on Friday, May 19th. Kropf’s release show at The Funhouse will feature the full recording band, as well as opening act Joy Ike. Tickets are $15, and can be purchased here or at the door. The music starts at 8 PM. Check out more event info here, as well as Kropf’s page here.