Pianist and singer/songwriter Jillette Johnson's debut full-length album, 2013's Water in a Whale, is an impressive, ambitious album that showcases Johnson's talent for classical-influenced piano, as well as lyrics that are at once intimately poetic and universally relatable. Johnson fits into the long tradition of piano-playing female pop artists, from Carole King to Tori Amos to Vanessa Carlton to Regina Spektor. Much like those artists, Johnson has a knack for balancing her more personal, almost diary-like songwriting inclinations with a radio-ready sense of pop composition. In that sense, her mix of arty yet melodic pop also brings to mind such icons as Kate Bush and Laura Nyro, and while there is certainly a sophistication and girlishness to some of these songs, there is also a bold cockiness expressed here. Jillette, a New York City girl, is no innocent flower; she's a fighter who, as she sings on the leadoff "Torpedo," knows "how to take a right hook," "put a shot back," and "fake a hard look." This fiery attitude also helps Jillette get away with several florid, grand character-driven epics in tunes like "When the Ship Goes Down" and "Pauvre Coeur," which could come off as melodramatic overkill were it not for the fact that Jillette utterly commits to each line. It also doesn't hurt that she has a hugely resonant voice to match the big personalities she inhabits in each song. Part of Jillette's power comes from her ability to utterly lay bare her personal demons and failings in ways only the most confident women can. In "Peter Pan," she reveals that she's the last of her friends to give up the debauched freedoms of youth, like getting drunk on Tuesday nights and smoking pot. Similarly, she admits to several lust-driven, possibly abusive relationships with "Last Bus Out" and the utterly supplicating "Basset Hound," in which she shivers the lines "I wanna follow you around/Like a dog" and "While you play your games/I'll be at your gate, baby." While Jillette is certainly willing to own up to her personal failings, she is never the victim in these songs, but always the soldier with a sense of gallows humor, whose wounds make her stronger as they heal. As she sings on "True North," "Got to admit there's something funny in the fall to ruin" and "When the road ends and spits you out/You'll call your friends and wipe your nose/You'll find true north and stumble home." Ultimately, on Water in a Whale, Jillette may admit to her stumbles, but creatively she never falls.
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AllMusic Review by Matt Collar