Paul Schwartz is one of those rare composer/producers whose unique musical impulses are blessedly hard to categorize, even as they engage the feet and seduce the soul. His first two recordings, his 1997 debut Aria and its sequel Aria, Vol. 2: New Horizen -- which spent a combined two years plus on Billboard's Classical Crossover chart -- blended ambient dance grooves with live orchestra and recomposed snippets from familiar operatic pieces. His 2000 hit, State of Grace -- Billboard's number 11 best-selling new age CD of 2001 -- featured more original material, combining some of these same elements with the influence of religious texts and hymns. Exploring the timeless themes of love and loss, his latest -- a mix of seven ethereal vocals and three instrumentals recorded at Abbey Road Studios -- offers a similarly enigmatic landscape featuring groove intensive trip-hop trances; full-blown, classically influenced orchestral sweeps; ambient seductions; and mystical new age/pop textures. Often in Schwartz's multi-faceted musical universe, many of these occur during the same song. The set is bookended by two non-vocal pieces that capture crucial elements of Schwartz's artistic growth. The opener, "Vol De Nuit," fuses moody and percussive synth textures with dramatic film score-like grandeur, reflecting his vast experience as a conductor and his keen eye toward studio experimentation. The closing tune, "Nocturnal," is a spacious, eloquent piano solo, recorded from a slight distance away from the instrument; it reminds one of his background and influence and the fact that he's grown far beyond that simple innocence. Five of the vocal tracks on Earthbound are showcases for the dreamy, sensuous vocals of Lisbeth Scott, who performed "Amazing Grace" on Schwartz's State of Grace to stunning effect. Schwartz fashioned the darkness-to-light musical story "La Gioca" from the libretto to a 17th century Italian opera; Scott's exotic Italian vocal -- sung over spacy synth effects and a thick bass groove -- affirm the value of the game of love, even in loss. The melancholy mood music for "River of Stars" was the first piece Schwartz wrote for the album, and Scott's own lyrics and performance offer optimism amidst the clouds. The other featured vocalists are Tara MacLean, who sings the somewhat obtuse Simon Crow lyrics to the title-track ballad; cleverly, the listener never told whether the song of lament is talking about approaching earth or being firmly grounded. Schwartz is currently producing a project for an Irish act led by Emily Aylmer and Ruth Cahill, and the tandem performs lead vocals on the sweeping, ethereal film score-flavored "Nevermore." As they listen, fans of religious history might enjoy reading St. John of the Cross' "Dark Night of the Soul," Schwartz's springboard inspiration. New age, pop, ambient, trance, and classical fans will find layers of rich emotional meaning even without that seminal text.
AllMusic Review by Jonathan Widran