By: Dennis Cook
Jesse Harris' sweet & sour blend sits inordinately well on the ear. It's akin to Paul Simon's nearly universal appeal sung in a voice hung somewhere between Rufus Wainwright and Randy Newman. His smooth turn-of-phrase and streamlined melodies announce a new populist but the prickly edges and clever arrangements make him an artist worth keeping tabs on. His work might be largely modern easy listening but why refuse something so wonderfully crafted and genuinely appealing?
Known to most through his contributions to Norah Jones' mega-hit debut, Come Away With Me, especially for penning the omnipresent single "Don't Know Why," the singer-guitarist is way more than a one trick pony. Feel is the seventh release in a career that stretches back to the mid-'90s. 14 tracks strong, there's not a dud in the bunch, and Harris shows increasing sophistication in his arrangements, emerging as a Zoloft Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse) for the wine spritzer crowd.
There's the Africanism of "Walk On" and the white reggae of "Fire On The Ocean." Both are effective and less honky-fied than you might expect. More appealing are the Iron & Wine-like "If I Had No Name" and '70s Simon worthy "After All." And kudos for joining Sufjan Stevens in modernizing the banjo in pop music on "How Could It Take So Long?"
The soundtrack to Ethan Hawke's film adaptation of his execrable novel, The Hottest State, gathers one of the classiest assortments of musicians ever to try their pipes on an all Harris assortment. Talk about an endorsement from your peers! From old Harris running partner Norah Jones to Cat Power, M. Ward and other college radio darlings, you'd be hard pressed to find a more critic-proof lineup. While a little too tasteful at times, it'd be curmudgeonly to say anything unkind about this set.
It is hard to escape the feeling that certain artists, particularly Willie Nelson and Feist are doing a Norah Jones impression. The shadow of "Don't Know Why" hovers over several tunes here in a way Feel thankfully avoids. Bright Eyes does a nice approximation of AOR-radio rock, his chipmunk croon riding big drums, glossy synths and a melody sure to warm housewives everywhere. Emmylou Harris and M. Ward sound especially vulnerable on their contributions, and The Black Keys put some nasty muscle into "If You Ever Slip," making one wonder if Jesse Harris' originals wouldn't benefit from a tougher sound at times.
Just because music is widely accessible (or even hugely successful for that matter) doesn't make it less worthy of our attentions. Jesse Harris is a top-flight craftsman who's only growing more interesting with the years. There's definitely something cool happening in his work that goes well beyond the limited impression his one hit with Jones has produced.
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