I have to be honest and say that I’ve known about Jeff Pianki for a while, but didn’t really know how to approach writing about him. I think his music is amazing and wonderful. I think he makes brilliant songwriting look effortless. His style is familiar, sweet even, but wrestles with some of the most difficult emotions that humans have about love and sorrow. From songs that should be legit pop radio hits, to singer-songwriter ballads, Pianki’s catalog is admirable for anyone, let alone someone who has built his remarkable career through YouTube and bandcamp. I give to you, EarToTheGround world, the magic of Jeff Pianki.
Pianki released some demos on his bandcamp page a while ago, but I’m going to talk about three of his substantive albums. They are all a mix of his great songwriting on both guitar and piano. His subtle vocal style captures an innocence that seems to draw out a particular personality in its own right. It seems that he is honest and sincere if his writing and singing are any indication.
Pianki’s Hello Scones EP is admittedly not a stand-alone album, but instead a collection of songs he wanted to release. That said, there’s a sincerity that comes out of each of the songs on the album. Even in this collection of songs it is evident that Pianki has a focus on simple things in life. Like, in the song “Washington” he rhymes that “The trees they make more oxygen and the people smile and let you in.” Fingerpicking on the guitar with harmonica and vocals… the song just blends in a familiar acoustic and Americana flavor. Then “Anthroarchaeology” has a completely different style to it, instead featuring Pianki’s piano composition skills. Fit for a soundtrack, it is an exquisite piece; relaxing, endearing, and fully comfortable. It’s one of the songs that embodies why I love Pianki’s work. It just captures positive vibes and a good emotion. Another of the songs in this collection is “Attachment,” a melancholy reflection on the life and death cycle. It’s far from the genre of music called “soul,” but Pianki certainly displays a lot of “soul” in the song. “We must die but also learn to be okay.” Yep.
I Want You to Have This is an intentional album that captures Pianki’s repertoire really well. He actually got help from two of his YouTube musician counterparts, Kiersten Holine and JT Royster. The second song “Seeds in the Ground” is a typical soothing Pianki song, full of allegory and symbolism that keeps listeners’ attention. It’s simultaneously relaxing and stimulating. The banjo makes the song work in a non-descript but lovely “folk” kind of way. The following “The Way I Love You” is one of Jeff Pianki’s best songs. It should be a top 40 hit, really, by most any estimation I can think of. It sounds like a Michael Buble song performed with a softer, lighter vocal. The guitar and piano balance for this whimsical “light jazz” feeling. “I could love no other the way that I love you.” Awwww. This is wedding song fodder, seriously. There are a few other good songs on the album, but “If Only” is destined for a soundtrack or a coffeeshop collection at very least. Featuring a variety of languages and the most endearing male-female harmonies you’ve ever heard, it’s just the embodiment of sweetness. It is a little tragic, I’ll warn you, because as cute as it is the focus is ultimately on disconnection. Sad face.
Pianki’s December 2010 release Paper Window is his best work to date (and latest feature length work). In this remarkable group of songs Pianki takes his listeners on an adventure that is both meaningful and easy to listen to. His style varies at moments, but his sustained acoustic simplicity really helps to drive home the point of living a real, complicated life. It’s got an almost Woody Guthrie grit and realism to it, to say nothing of the brilliant songwriting turns of phrase. “Missing Parts,” a song about an absentee father, is as deep as it seems like it would be. The music is inviting and the message is hard to hear. The following piano-based song and title track “Paper Window Dreams” is one of Pianki’s best in his entire discography. It’s one of those songs that’s so good and so clear that we wonder what the artist was really thinking about when he wrote it. The song focuses on, again, something missing. The title highlights a lost vision of how he wished to see his life. He writes, “Everyone I ever met has felt something I haven’t yet.” Wow. It hurts to hear, but the music is self is so unbelievably enjoyable. Pianki put his heart right out there for us on this one. “New York or Here” is a quaint love song. Pianki delivers his lyrics with a deliberate sincerity that is nearly spoken as much as sung. It makes the words sink in a bit deeper, which is an intriguing message of unconditional love. It’s sweet. The tune, “This Town” is another of Pianki’s best. It’s nostalgia in the strangest way. It’s about returning to a place… but maybe not just a place. The first verse is about storms, the second the street, the third a face, and fourth “my dreams.” Taken together, these verses reflect a very holistic vision of a writer reminiscing a different time that was, perhaps, better. It’s complicated and delightful all in one fell swoop.
Pianki’s catalog seems far from complete. He released a few other songs near the end of 2011, but seems to be keeping his work to himself for now. Considering his deeply emotional writing, I can’t say I blame him for wanting to hold his cards a little closer to his chest for a while. That said, I hope that he revisits writing music for the rest of us. His work on YouTube is often so understated but so good that I keep coming back for more. His co-conspirators Kiersten Holine and JT Royster both seem poised for successful careers. In the meantime (that is, while we wait for Pianki’s public return) he remains an example of why we even have this website. Frankly, more people need to know about the incredible music that Jeff Pianki is producing. Will you join us in sharing it? Thank you for your help.