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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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Year 2016

1
Levi Parham
90 pts.
These American Blues
Music Road Records
GC,JBO,TK
2
Martha Fields
86 pts.
Southern White Lies
Independent
BP,BH,FB,JAB,RW,SP
3
Carter Sampson
75 pts.
Wilder Side
Independent/CRS
AN,CRS,JB
4
Anna Elizabeth Laube
65 pts.
Tree
Ahh...Pockets! Records
DH,NC
5
Michael McDermott
60 pts.
Willow Springs
Pauper Sky Records
BK,MM
6
Shovels & Rope
54 pts.
Little Seeds
New West
 
7
Robert Ellis
53 pts.
Robert Ellis
New West Records
DHO
8
Sturgill Simpson
52 pts.
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Atlantic Records
JJ,JF
9
Douglas Greer
50 pts.
Baja Louisiana
Zilker Park Records
HDB,ML
10
Lucinda Williams
46 pts.
The Ghosts Of Highway 20
Highway 20 Records
EM
11
Buddy Miller & Friends
44 pts.
Cayamo Sessions at Sea
New West Records
 
12
Wink Burcham
43 pts.
Cleveland Summer Nights
Continental Song City
 
13
Eric Brace & Peter Cooper
42 pts.
C&O Canal
Red Beet Records
BR
14
Brent Cobb
41 pts.
Shine On A Rainy Day
Elektra Records
HH
 
Daniel Romano
41 pts.
Mosey
New West
CVL
 
Leonard Cohen
41 pts.
You Want it Darker
Sony Music
HO
17
Christian Kjellvander
40 pts.
A Village: Natural Light
Tapete Records
BM
18
Drive-By Truckers
39 pts.
American Band
ATO Records
AR,EZ
19
Birds of Chicago
38 pts.
Real Midnight
Five Head Entertainment
LM,SZ
20
John Prine
37 pts.
For Better, or Worse
Oh Boy Records
FS,MB
21
The Cactus Blossoms
36 pts.
You’re Dreaming
Red House Records
GS,HD
22
Richmond Fontaine
35 pts.
You Can’t Go Back
Décor Records
FCE
23
Gillian Welch
34 pts.
Boots No.1: The Official Revival Bootleg
Acony Records
LK,PR,TJ
24
Sarah Jarosz
33 pts.
Undercurrent
Sugar Hill
RM
25
Joe Purdy
32 pts.
Who Will Be Next?
Mudtown Crier Records
AL
 
The Devil Makes Three
32 pts.
Redemption & Ruin
New West

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