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Record of the week: Matt Harlan - Bow and Be Simple

www.matthewharlan.com

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.   

John Davy

 

 

 


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December 2018
1
Malford Milligan
75 pts.
Life Will Humble You
Royal Family Records
JF,FB
2
JD McPherson
61 pts.
Socks
New West Records
CVL,DHO,MVP,MB
3
Rosanne Cash
50 pts.
She Remembers Everything
Blue Note Records
WR,BP,JSM,HB
4
Ad Vanderveen
45 pts.
I Was Hank William
Blue Rose Records
TK,LM,BM,JB
5
John Hiatt
44 pts.
The Eclipse Sessions
New West
FC
6
The Yearlings
41 pts.
Skywriting
Lonely Sounds Records
EZ
7
Tip Jar
40 pts.
Onward
Independent
FS
8
Nathan Bell
39 pts.
Loves Bones & Stars
Angry Stick Recording Co.
RB,SZ,PG
9
The Brother Brothers
38 pts.
Some People I Know
Compass Records
BK
10
Richard Dobson
30 pts.
I Hear Singing
Brambus Records
JS,NC
11
Steve Forbert
29 pts.
The Magic Tree
Blue Rose Music
PR
12
J.P. Harris
28 pts.
Sometimes Dogs Bark At Nothing
Free Dirt Records
TJ
13
The Bottle Rockets
24 pts.
Bit Logic
Bloodshot Records
GS,PKO
14
Rodney Crowell
23 pts.
Christmas Everywhere
New West
 
15
Christian Kjellvander
22 pts.
Wild Hxmans
Tapete
 
16
Erin Costelo
21 pts.
Sweet Marie
Compass Records
PJ
17
Colter Wall
20 pts.
Songs of the Plains
Young Mary's Record
 
18
The Hillbenders
19 pts.
The Hillbenders
Compass Records
FH
19
Eric Bibb
18 pts.
Global Griot
Stony Plain
 
 
Karine Polwart
18 pts.
Laws of Motion
Hudson Records
HH,KG
21
Carson McHone
17 pts.
Carousel
Nine Mile Records
 
 
Malcolm Holcombe
17 pts.
Come Hell Or High Water
Gypsy Eyes Music
MF
23
Ben Bedford
16 pts.
The Hermit's Spyglass
Cavalier Recordings
SP
 
Craig Moreau
16 pts.
A Different Kind Of Train
Independent
MP
 
David Olney
16 pts.
This Side Or The Other
Black Hen Music

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