Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Album Review: Brett Harris, Man of Few Words

Brett Harris Man of Few Words

Brett Harris Music, 2010

Too often songwriters whose sensibilities have been nurtured by the audible hiss of cheap mic’s and tape machines stumble upon first sight of the space and power of a pro studio. Given the keys to the proverbial gear closet, they prove either too sheepish or too greedy in deciding what to pull out of it. So it’s a welcome change when one of these basement troubadours takes an accurate measure of his material and emerges from the big desk with something sparkling and seamless. That’s the happy case with Brett Harris's Man of Few Words, the Durham songwriter’s first full-length studio album, and one that fulfills the spry promise of his two earlier EPs. With Man, Harris and producer Jeff Crawford have created a sound that can be big without bullying and arrangements that are lush though never overbearing.

The giddy opener “I Found Out” serves both as harbinger of a bright new beginning for Harris as well as a multum in parvo for the album as a whole. An anxiously strummed acoustic guitar quickly gives way to 12 string electrics, blond organs, pianos, tympanis, string arrangements and brassy horn sections that expand and contract along with Harris’s flights of fancy. Throughout Man, Harris’s compositions benefit mightily from the supporting cast he’s assembled, which includes Crawford on bass and a murderer’s row of local musicians familiar to fans of MAX Indian and Luego. As they did on their own debut last year, Indian’s Nick Jaeger and Carter Gaj prove here again that a well-crafted guitar fill can be every bit as revelatory as a blistering solo.

For all the help Harris gets from his friends, however, Man’s punch lies in the frontman’s vocal performance. Lithe but limber, Harris’s voice plays equally well as solo instrument or stacked in one of the album’s many rich, midrange harmonies, In the past, Harris has earned comparisons to Elvis Costello and Jeff Buckley, but in its phrasing and texture, Harris’s delivery on this effort often evokes more ethereal singers like Phoenix’s Thomas Mars or Sukilove’s Pascal Deweze, euros from whom the 80s blue eyed soul phenomenon was a less problematic influence than for Americans.

It’s a little ironic then that Man’s lone weakness comes with what Harris has to say. While his lyrics tend to satisfy the concept of the songs, they also at times suffer from a lack of ambition, especially compared to a number of the songs on his previous EPs. The album’s title notwithstanding, Harris is not a man of few words by any means, but the surface sheen and polish of the sentiment often makes it difficult to judge depth. In these cases the result is expression that is comfortable rather than particularly memorable.

Not coincidentally, the album’s two best cuts – “Perpetual Motion” and “See the Light” – find Harris developing a sustained lyrical conceit that informs and intercedes with the arrangement and the melody, rather than simply floating over the top. In “Perpetual Motion,” for example, the feverish rejoinder, “gotta keep on movin,” plays call and response as a piano signature bounces like a gypsum ball across Charles Cleaver’s roulette wheel organ.

After the light and embraceable pop of the album’s A side, “Perpetual Motion” and “See the Light” seem to promise a more introspective turn on the way out. Although what follows doesn’t quite bear out this promise (later cuts such as “Wish” and “Over and Over” feel more like genre exercises than compositions that reward what Harris does best), Harris certainly proves that he’s not just another open-mic strummer with an ear for a catchy hook, but a serious songwriter with big ideas and in full control of his material. --Hidden Tiger

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Brett Harris will celebrate the release of Man of Few Words at Nightlight in Chapel Hill on Friday April 2, 2010 at 10 PM. Opening will be Raleigh's Bright Young Things and Durham alt. country rockers Luego.

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