NYC singer/songwriter and former Grammy winner Jesse Harris is a busy man these days. He recently acted in and wrote the soundtrack to Ethan Hawke's film The Hottest State, the bulk of which were covered by such indie stalwarts as Cat Power, M. Ward, Bright Eyes, Feist, and even Willie Nelson. Now, just in time for the middle of the summer season, Harris releases his seventh solo album, Feel, a collection of easygoing tropical folk pop ditties, some of which hint at or explore other genres.
There are six other musicians who play or sing on the record, but the work is clearly Harris's, as it always has been, even when he started out in 1999 as Jesse Harris and the Ferdinandos. He has since dropped the band from the name and made records as a solo artist, but made a wise decision in holding over bassist Tim Luntzel, whose electric and upright bass playing never outshines Jesse, but adds strong dynamics to his best work.
Though Feel is a long player chock full of slow and midtempo tracks, ironically, it moves along at a fast pace, with more than half of them checking in at under three minutes. The album itself is just under forty minutes long.
The loudest song (for Harris, anyway) comes first, with title track "Feel." It starts out with just a folky acoustic riff, followed by the rest of the band and then a solo done on a distorted electric guitar, which makes the first of its rather infrequent appearances on the record. Not that having minimal electric guitar here is a bad thing. Quite the opposite.
The next song, "I Don't Mind," has a steady, upright bass rhythm, light hand drumming by Andrew Borger – who previously worked with Norah Jones – and is the most peaceful, gorgeous acoustic-based track on the record. And for you guitarists out there, it's played with a capo on the fourth fret.
It's a perfect soundtrack for watching the sunset (instead of just looking at pictures of it, as Harris says he does in the song itself). The main melody Harris plays on acoustic guitar is bright yet quiet, and to these ears, has one note in particular that has a long, sustained ring that at first it sounds like it's coming from a wind instrument.
On the somewhat jazzy "Where To Start," you can almost picture Harris's former fellow Grammy-winning collaborator Norah Jones – who remade his Ferdinandos-era cut "Don't Know Why" in 2002 into a worldwide hit – saying, "Jesse, I can jazz this one up a bit too, if you'd like." Violinist Jenny Scheinman, who makes some appearances on Feel, also worked with Norah Jones on her debut hit record Come Away With Me.
Organist (and pianist) Jon Dryden gets to show off his skills a bit on some tracks, including "After All," which also features background vocals by guest Richard Julian, a Delaware-born folk artist, currently based in New York City.
Vibraphones and soft percussion (courtesy of Mauro Refosco) accompany the smoothly played acoustic melodies of "Walk On," while high-pitched piano chords highlight the breezy, weather-themed "The Wind." The similarly themed "How Could It Take So Long?" features Harris on banjo and harmonica, where he displays a hint of the blues. Speaking of bluesy pop stars, on these two tracks, Harris sounds a bit like John Mayer or David Gray, at least vocally; in the past, other critics have compared him to artists like Jackson Browne.
Overall, most of this record will get you through these lazy summer days, but there are some that are sleepy slow, most notably "If I Had No Name," or are half-decent but have heard it before, like the intimate, waltzy love song "You And Me."
Thankfully though, Jesse Harris saves arguably his best and most surprising (to these ears) composition for last, the reggae-inflected "Fire On The Ocean." Heavy on organ and percussion, this upbeat track, even if it's written in a minor key, ends the album on a happy, head-bopping note.
Feel has a more positive spirit and a little more rock (i.e. "Luxembourg") than in past efforts, and taken together, this album is solid, should not disappoint any fans of his previous work, and even breaks some new ground for the aging Jesse Harris, who is 37 years of age. The percussive elements (by Refosco) are new for Harris and were inspired by African/Brazilian music. "It Washed Away" is the prime example of that influence, with both Borger and Refosco on percussion and Refosco also on vibes.
The fact that this CD, as good as it sounds, was recorded in just three days, without much rehearsal at all is even more impressive. One wonders what other territory Harris could've explored with more time.
Finally, I must admit that initially, there were just a few songs on this CD I really liked. The album had to grow on me before I finally got it, and so probably spent more time trying to pick up on all the elements of it than Harris spent actually recording it. Now, I just let Feel play all the way through without a thought. That should tell you all you need to know about the quality of this recording. It's summertime music, so go check it out now while it's still hot!
Feel is in Internet and retail stores now on Velour Recordings.