RIDDLE THE SPHINX – Professional Pretender

Riddle The Sphinx, a Los Angeles piano-based trio, have been given various press accolades for their previous works, with words like “enchanting” often used.  Listening to their 2012 full length ‘Professional Pretender’, it’s hard not to argue that their piano/bass/percussion combination – topped with sweeping twin harmonies from the band’s two female voices – has a certain enchanting quality.  They have also been praised for their originality.  Here, such claims are rather more grand, since if you’ve heard the first two or three albums by Tori Amos, some of the structures from RTS’s work will be more than familiar.  That’s not saying these songs don’t have a huge appeal, since ‘Professional Pretender’s material is still well arranged and superbly played, but to claim any huge amount of originality within this trio’s chosen musical field would be a stretch.

Opening with some severely bouncy pianos – the like which would adorn a typical upbeat Ben Folds composition – in ‘Hey You’, the album starts incredibly strongly.  Don’t look for anything too deep, though: the piano lines may bring a touch of Folds’s goodness, but lyrically Riddle The Sphinx lack that sneering and occasionally spiteful edge which adorns most of Folds’s best outings.  Vocally, there’s a similar breezy approach, and it’s one which suits the musical backdrop greatly.  There are harmony vocals to thicken the already intricate arrangement out farther, but unlike Sharks Took The Rest – for example – these aren’t quite as in your face as you might expect. The chorus itself could be considered throwaway, since relies heavily of the repetition of “hey you”; however, due to the complex nature of the overall arrangement, RTS pulls off such lyrical simplicity thus creating an opening number which suggests further listening would be time well spent.

Still pushing the piano and vocal to the fore, comparisons with a couple of Tori Amos’s earlier compositions cannot be avoided during the title cut.  That’s not to say there’s any direct lifting going on – none at all – but the stabbing pianos and slightly off-kilter time signature, coupled with a selection of reverbed guitars, makes the overall affair sound as if it may fit rather well among choice material from Amos’s ‘Boys For Pele’ period.  As with ‘Hey You’, Christiane Cargill Kinney’s lead voice commands attention with its effortless and breathy delivery.  ‘Master Plan’ brings elements of both tracks together, as Christiane’s voice adopts a sweeping majesty across sparse verses, before the rest of the band chime in for a bigger, somewhat quirkier chorus.  The instant likeability of ‘Hey You’ appears somewhat distant here, and perhaps more could be made of the upbeat chorus, but the blanding of voices with staccato guitar lines provides interesting results.   Also interesting, ‘One Man Band’ has a main structure based around a waltzing time signature played on the piano, while the percussion teeters upon Eastern themes, tinkering with sounds that are almost tabla-like, punctuated by a heavier use of cymbals than most of the other tracks.  As with RTS’s best numbers, though, it’s the harmonies between Kinney and Burgundy Morgan which hold the attention throughout.

As with any piano-based work, there are softer tracks where the sweeping keys are presented in a solitary manner.  On ‘I See You In Everyone’, Riddle The Sphinx are strong in such a stark arrangement.  While the piano is smooth – it’s gentle approach more than reminiscent of a Sarah McLachlan ballad or half of Tori Amos’s ‘Under the Pink’ – it’s the vocal harmonies which, again, have the strongest presence.  It may seem that Tori Amos provides a quick get out when deconstructing RTS’s sound, but occasionally it’s just inescapable: ‘Keep On Walking’ – as great as it may be – appears to shamelessly borrow most of its musical inspiration from Amos’s own ‘Cornflake Girl’ and ‘Happy Phantom’.  There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, and RTS sound like they’re having a great time (as you will listening, if this kind of thing is your bag).  If the band is going to be inspired, it makes sense to be inspired by one of the best piano-based artists working in a similar field…

Overall, ‘Professional Pretender’ is home to eleven well-crafted songs.  RTS don’t always mask their influences as much as they perhaps could, but it doesn’t make what they do any less enjoyable (although some of your more hardcore Tori Amos fans may argue…)  The arrangements are mostly spot on and the harmonies are glossy and especially tight. If you have a liking for piano based pop with a quasi-orchestral feel it’s an album which ought to appeal, especially if you’re able to enjoy at face value and not analyse it too deeply.

February/March 2012