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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1693

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Jesse Harris: Sub Rosa
by George Graham

(Dangerbird 085 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/25/2012)

While much of the contemporary music scene is dominated by singer-songwriters, there are still a number of popular artists who primarily draw on the works of other songwriters for their material. And there are plenty of those composers out there hoping to provide that material in hopes of generating a hit. Often those who have written hit songs for others have their own career as performers. Willie Nelson and Carole King were examples of performing songwriters whose own solo career followed their having written hit songs for others. This week, we have another good example of a performer known mainly for writing hit material for others. It's Jesse Harris, and his new CD is called Sub Rosa.

A New York City native, Jesse Harris grew up in an artistic family -- his mother was a TV writer and actor. He started composing songs at an early age, and wanted to be writer of prose, so he majored in English at Cornell. But he was drawn to the singer-songwriter-dominated folk scene. He became half a duo called Once Blue, which had a major label album around 1995. He was also part of a band called the Ferdinandos, which released three albums. He started recording under his own name around 2002. His songwriting career took off after Norah Jones scored a big hit with Harris' Don't Know Why, for which he won a Grammy Award for song of the year in 2003. He also played guitar on Ms. Jones' recording. Since then, Harris' songs have been recorded by Willie Nelson, Smokey Robinson, the late Solomon Burke, and Emmylou Harris among others.

But Harris maintains his own performing career, and insists that creating music for others and contributing on their recordings is a sideline. Harris has released about seven albums under his own name, including an instrumental recording in 2010. He has also travelled widely, often opening on concerts for the well-known artists with whom he has collaborated. He appeared in Brazil a few times, got to know some artists and friends there. So after being invited to spend some time in Rio with friends as a kind of vacation, Harris decided that Rio would be the setting for his new release. Thus, the regular band on Sub Rosa includes Brazilian musicians, but the recording continued in New York, with the addition of the various guest appearances by artists including Norah Jones, Conor Oberst of the band Bright Eyes, vocalist Melody Gardot, and eclectic guitarist Bill Frisell. Small string and horn sections were added in New York as well. The result is an enjoyable album that is fairly eclectic in sound. The Brazilian influence is usually subtle, mostly in a kind of texture to the performance, rather than specific things like rhythms and instrumentation. Harris' songs are pleasing and literate. His vocals have a degree of charm, though one might call his vocal style songwriter's singing. Harris' fourteen compositions on this CD are generally succinct, with only one exceeding four minutes, with several under three. The album is put together so that the short songs flow well from one to the next. Most are love songs of one sort or another, and many are rather oblique lyrically.

Leading off is one of those brief but eclectic songs. I Know It Won't Be Long shows very little of the Brazilian influence, but instead is an interesting rather retro-sounding, almost theatrical blend featuring the horn section. <<>>

That leads into a piece that does show some tropical influence. Rocking Chairs with its slightly quirky love lyrics, features the guest backing vocals of Norah Jones. <<>>

That segues almost seamlessly into All Your Days which continues the breezy sound with interesting lyrics about someone who seems pretty aimless. The string section makes an appearance. <<>>

When the Brazilian influence is heard on this CD, it takes a rather retro direction. It's Been Going 'Round evokes some of the pop of the 1960s in its sound. <<>>

One interesting stylistic departure is a song called Sad Blues whose title is quite descriptive. Oddly, it turns out to be one of the highlights of the album. <<>>

This CD contains two instrumental pieces. One is called Afternoon in Kanda, which is a city in Japan. It's basically a built on a folky guitar riff, with the horns added, the arrangement by Maycon Ananias. It serves as a kind of eclectic interlude. <<>>

Another track featuring the backing vocals of Norah Jones is Rube and Mandy in Coney Island. It's one of the more intriguing pieces on the album with its sound that alternates between rather atmospheric and parts with the string section. <<>>

Though the album was primarily recorded in Brazil, there is one track Harris wrote with French lyrics. Tant Pis features the guest vocals of Melody Gargot. It perhaps intentionally evokes the sound of some of Serge Gainsbourg's 1960s hits. <<>>

Jesse Harris' new CD Sub Rosa is an enjoyable and fairly eclectic recording by someone who has had a more than 15-year recording career, but is still primarily known as a songwriter for Norah Jones and others. Ms. Jones again returns the favor on this CD, but the basic band is Brazilian, recorded in Rio de Janeiro. The Brazilian influence is not as pronounced as one might expect, though. There are perhaps one or two of the 14 songs with any significant bossa nova or other obvious Brazilian sound. But there is a kind of underlying easy-going tropical feeling to the record, and there are a lot of other influences happening. Harris again creates some high-quality, literate songs, serves them up tastefully and provides an interesting variety of musical ingredients.

Our grade for audio quality is an "A." The recording has captures the mix of instrumentation. There are some occasional effects added to Harris' vocals, but they are not obtrusive, and the dynamic range -- how the recording captures the differences between loud and soft -- is noticeably better than the typical for these days. The drums have a nice punchy sound.

Jesse Harris said that he cut back on the collaborations he has done for others for about a year and a half as he worked on this CD. The result is a worthwhile recording that highlights not only Harris' writing and guitar work, but his own appealing style.

(c) Copyright 2012 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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