Review/Listen: Daniel Hart – “The Orientalist”

Whether you know it or not, you may well have been exposed to Texan multi-instrumentalist Daniel Hart. The most obvious and likely exposure would be through St. Vincent, both as a member of her backing band as well as being featured on “Actor”. But if you’ve listened to or seen John Vanderslice, Other Lives, or The Rosebuds, you’ve at least heard Hart’s contributions. There’s even Hart’s former band The Physics Of Meaning. But sometime after his time with St. Vincent came to an end, Hart started prepping a solo debut. The result is “The Orientalist”, originally released last year through Bandcamp but now seeing a wider release after a few tweaks here and there.

“O Sangeeta” is the listener’s introduction to Hart’s batch of songs inspired by his time in India, although this swaggering rock jam certainly doesn’t tell you much. It’s got a rather simple lovelorn appeal, without any real hint of the foreign influence besides the titular character’s name. And the same remains true for violin-centric “Van Gogh Sher Gil” and the rolling pop rock jangle of “Black Licorice”. It’s not until things slow down a bit with “God of Small Things” that you get your first taste of Hart’s oriental flavorings and eastern influence and even then it’s subtle and fleeting.  Instead you have to pay attention to keywords and phrases and Hart’s composition – occasional uses of pentatonic tuning are another obvious but subtle hint.

“The Orientalist” is an album that ebbs and flows, a real attentive listening experience that has you wondering and waiting for what Hart’s going to do next and rarely disappoints. Subtly engrossing songs like “God of Small Things” and “Happy Forever” happen precisely at the right time to give a break from Hart’s poppy fanfares like “How Can Love Be Wrong?” and the title track. At all times Hart does his best to keep things from becoming too static or predictable, even using much appreciated purely instrumental tracks to break up the experience. There’s even room for a pretty virtuosic display of Hart’s violin prowess in sparse album opener “Achilles Heart (Hanuman Steals The Bow And Arrow)” which expressively builds atop pizzicatos and rhythmic string crossings.

“The Orientalist” is an American’s experience abroad, a collection of love-fuelled reveries that Hart allows you to share with him, but the albums appeal is pretty universal; you don’t have to know much about Hart or India or anything really for the album to affect you. It may be Daniel Hart’s solo debut, but “The Orientalist” is no novice endeavor, balancing empathetic songwriting with, in most cases, decidedly poppy overtones. Sometimes it covers the actual lyricism up but mostly it gives the album a forward push and keeps you from ever getting bored.

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