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CD Review: Early Work 1986-1995 

click to enlarge (2013, Hieroglyph Records)
  • (2013, Hieroglyph Records)

Something inclines piano-based singer/songwriters to the open, sweeping melodicism of Copland's imagined America or Percy Grainger's multi-continental heartland. Maybe it is the properties and proclivities of the instrument itself. You can hear it in Bruce Hornsby, Randy Newman, and Richard Manuel—baroque folk with clean fingernails, blues chorale, parlor rag. It comes with varying amounts of jazz tension and the formal sophistication of musical theater: In Newman loads, in Hornsby none. Croton-on-Hudson's Rob Morsberger works solidly in this high chamber-folk tradition, his style aligning most closely with Newman's, with whom he shares a background in composition and scoring. A simple melody in Morsberger's hands can quickly turn up Stephen Foster's street, or Sondheim's, or Tin Pan Alley.

Half the art is in the spacious settings and the guileful arrangements. In the domain of lyrics and persona, Morsberger shares little of Newman's subversive political wit or the dark mythos of Tom Waits (though at times he tries for both), favoring instead an earnest spiritualism and the language of personal struggle and growth. This confessional-age voice can at times feel oddly juxtaposed over his antiquarian roots idiom. When he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2011, Morsberger met the news with a flurry of productivity, releasing two new CDs as well as this two-disc archival set, which features contributions from Loudon Wainwright III, Suzzy Roche, and Marshall Crenshaw. It is a rewarding, expansive document of a gifted composer's progress in both the musical and the personal arenas.

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