"She’s at her best in chart toppers like Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” when voice and harp connect at just the right level."
Erin Hill, harp; Mike Nolan, pedal steel guitar and drum programming. Cleopatra Records, 2016.
If you’ve found yourself at the Ritz on New York City’s Central Park, your ears have likely perked up to the sound of a very unusual instrumentalist and her calming soundtrack competing with the traffic outdoors.
Erin Hill plays her own arrangements of everything from Lady Gaga to The Beatles, and sings along, her ever-so-slightly gravel-fried but sweet mezzo—think Cyndi Lauper—enunciating the lyrics. Taking its name from Steve Earle’s 1986 debut album Guitar Town, Ms. Hill’s Harp Town is a collection of some of the most iconic hits from the world of pop.
Who hasn’t done the same as Ms. Hill, who at 8 years old while learning the basics on the harp soon began fiddling around in search of the chords and melodies of songs she’d fallen in love with? Her years of exploration show splendidly—every track an original take, with a soft caress of the harp punctuated almost imperceptibly with drums here and bass there, her enticing voice, in just the right moments, breaking into its own prism of overdubbed harmony.
My favorites include the cover of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” where Ms. Hill casually leaps into the stratosphere, pinging the high notes before gliding into her chest voice, the harp gently caressing the chords like an opera orchestra accompanying a recitative. And this is the genius of an arranger: to add just enough to increase the tension, a choir of Erin Hill’s, and an undercurrent of harmony on synth.
Sammy Cahn’s “Come Fly with Me” has just the right hint of the Rat Pack. Ms. Hill gives way completely to her richest vibrato and lets it all hang out in her harp improvisation—light as air and without a single care in the world.
It takes chutzpah to follow with the “Habanera” from Carmen. No, she is not an opera singer, but in a heartbeat I’d prefer to hear this version over some pop artists who have fancied themselves ready for the Met. Her French is spot-on, and I bet Elina Garanca would gladly steal ideas from that breathy and lusty “Amour!”
Ms. Hill has appeared with the above-mentioned Cyndi Lauper in concert as well as Enya, Jewel, and Kanye West. She’s at her best in chart toppers like Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” when voice and harp connect at just the right level. Some songs like Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino” might feel a bit gratuitous, receiving only a listening or two, but overall this is a beautifully recorded and produced album of sumptuous arrangements.