'Bow and Be Simple' may be too simple
Aug 01, 2013 (Duluth News Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Matt Harlan's duo with Brian Hudson (whose album "Comfort Quest" was reviewed last week), Hudson and Harlan, came through Duluth last week for a show at Amazing Grace.
Both men are pushing their latest solo (or mostly solo) releases; Harlan's goes by the name "Bow and Be Simple." As the title might indicate, it's a collection of music that doesn't demand too much, but rather it gently raps on the listener's door and almost apologizes for the intrusion. Song titles include "Too Much Going On," "Simple Song," and "The Easy Road." (What, no numbers called "Don't Mind Me" or "Thank You for Your Valuable Time"?)
As loudly humble as the album might appear to be, it's actually not a feel-good bag of cliches about takin' it easy and whatnot. The reason it works instead of collapsing under its own unobtrusiveness is because the Texas-bred Harlan seems to actually be the guy he presents. Far too often, musicians crassly decide on their image rather than letting their image be dictated by their work, and Harlan comes off like a guy who is just being himself.
The title track is a good indicator of what the rest of the album is like; there's some gentle acoustic guitar, brushed drums and an unadorned voice front and center.
"I walk humble and patient / along down the road / and I search for the truth in the stories I'm told," Harlan sings, his voice coupled with Rachel Jones', as it is on much of the collection. The song musically is a close relative of Pearl Jam's "Nothingman" in the way it waltzes along, chords descending. Vocally, Harlan has a slightly Dylan-esque cadence at times, but he also can sound like a country singer, or maybe like Lyle Lovett in his approach.
"I was looking out the window / wishing it would rain / thinking about a thousand things / I could've done today," Harlan sings on "Too Much Going On," before completely handing over the second verse to Jones. They finally join up to sing harmony about phones that won't stop ringing in the third. The song is put together well, but Harlan's approach here is a tad bland and nondescript. He never really says what the "too much" is, and he doesn't quite provide the listener with an idea as to why he feels this way. A tasteful guitar solo brings the song to a close.
"Darker Shade of Grey" gets some blood pumping through the record with some Johnny Cash-style "Ring of Fire" bass and drums. Instead of blasting trumpets, though, we get some nicely plucked acoustic 12-string. "I wish that I could tell you of the fortune and the fame / but there's a high cost of admission to the game we're trying to play," sings Harlan.
"Tried to write a simple song / something closer to the truth," Harlan sings on "Simple Song" over a bed of thumping tom-tom and spaghetti-western tremolo guitar. "But I ended up just rambling on / the way I always do / nothing's changed." Later in the track, his voice slightly overloads the microphone, adding a Black Keys distorted vocal vibe to the tune.
In the end, "Bow and Be Simple" suffers from a bit of sameness -- a number of the tracks are comprised of the same elements, the same shades -- but it's all well-played and produced appropriately.
Fans of folk and blues should find something to like here. If, y'know, it's not too much of an intrusion to suggest.
Tony Bennett reviews music for the News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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