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Houston-based Matt Harlan made quite an impact with his first album, Tips and Compliments. Bow and Be Simple, mostly recorded in a single day with a Danish band led by M C Hansen, should cement his reputation as a substantial songwriter. There’s a fluid self- confidence to his writing that at times comes close to matching early Dylan for a clear-eyed description of the world as he sees it. There’s a lovely, very original, love song to close the album but otherwise there’s a rough split between social commentary and existential matters.
The more beautiful or the jollier the music gets, the more likely it is that he’s dealing with pretty serious subject matter. The Ring, for example, deals with domestic abuse but the tender beauty of Matt’s singing and of the arrangement belies the harshness of the tale. Similarly, the relaxed, cheerful shuffle of The Easy Road is in contrast to the litany of disrupted lives that the lyric details, as Matt turns his writer’s eye to the current economic disruption. He has a wonderful, Dylanesque talent for nailing big concepts with a jokey pithiness: “the easy road has taken us for granted” runs the refrain in this song. “Seems as though we’ve taken it the same” he continues, and you maybe have to think about that for a moment before the truth of it sinks in. There isn’t a song here without lines of similar quality, and I particularly like this couplet from Darker Shade of Grey:
“Some say the world revolves around the slow pull of the sun/But I’m learning it’s the darker things that get the moving done”.
The Danish band are really good, always sympathetic to the feel of the song; it’s difficult to describe the sound they make, given that you could say that this is country-infused folk that also has a definite rock sensibility in the mix. I presume it’s M C Hansen contributing the beautiful electric guitar embellishments to Too Much Going On, so gentle and contemplative, whilst Rachel Jones’ additional vocals (sometimes harmonising, sometimes trading lead with Matt) bring an extra dimension to these songs. The most intense arrangements are on songs that deal with keeping your life on track when doubts and dark thoughts threaten your equilibrium. Elevator Ride, for example, is about the relentless cycle of the office worker’s life, “chasing money like the cure for some disease” and facing the elevator ride to the 22nd floor day after day.
The title song is the simplest and possibly the most old-fashioned – a touch of the old Shaker hymns about it. In a refreshing contrast to the egocentric culture of the last few decades, Matt vows to “walk humble and patient…and search for the truth in the stories I’m told”. He’s not preaching at us, he’s just (mostly) at peace with himself and has a poet’s need to understand the world he finds himself in. With a knack for melodies that seem to have been around forever, he makes it easy to get into these songs and his distinctive, high-quality writing should ensure that we hear a lot more from Matt Harlan.
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