Matt Harlan is a storyteller. He is in the right spot (Austin-based) in a state that raises up its singer/songwriters to deserved status. Matt’s tales are clear, the stories surface level and as real as the land that raised them up from snippets of conversation, newspaper headlines or general life in the great state of Texas. “Old Allen Road” presents the song like a movie, building an obvious back story with an open to interpretation ending, Matt Harlan uses the tale as a personal warning to not let play out with the same ending. Raven Hotel is the most recent, and third release, from Matt Harlan. His earlier efforts promised at the storyteller that is alive and well on the new record. If any change has transpired it is in the singer’s delivery of his own words. The tales are a big part of Matt Harlan music, and in Raven Hotel the stories rely on Matt for their worth as they let his voice be the bar band on stage trying to “Rock and Roll” above a Saturday night crowd and allow the mood swings and swoops in his voice to drain the color from “Burgundy and Blue” to present the tune in chromatic black and white.
Raven Hotel has Matt Harlan’s name on the cover but this is not a solo effort. The songs gathered in the rooms of Raven Hotel are as much as part of what you take away as the impassioned voice, subtle guitar and smooth sway of the rhythms. Rachel Jones, Matt’s wife, offers vocal back-up on the album and though the addition of family may have fit in budget, Rachel’s voice is an instrument that compliments Matt’s like the high roaming fiddles (“Old Spanish Moss”), fat organ chords (“The Optimist”) and the road that flashes by under “Second Gear”. Rachel attaches to the percussive motion of “Rising with the Wind”, the only thing separating her from the groove is the tender notes that dot the track. Matt Harlan as a songwriter uses references from his day gig to point out the ways for others and hears a “Half Developed Song” when he tries to start a revolution, unpacking memories that materialize out of the rhythm in his guitar strums.
– Danny, The Alternate Root
June 17, 2014
RAVEN HOTEL is a journey through time and space, leaving the cares of your day behind. The opening strains of Old Spanish Moss invite the listener to settle in, pour a drink and put your feet up. While the genre is listed as Alternative, I am carried back to the 1960’s and city park in Boulder CO where as a little girl I would sit and listen to the folk artists tell stories through their music.
The smooth tone of Rachel Jones’ voice compliments Matt Harlan’s rich depth for a perfect pairing. A number of talented musicians lend to the overall flavor the tracks evoke. From Old Spanish Moss to the last note ofRearview Display, each of the twelve tracks on RAVEN HOTEL offers up a solid tumbler of southern comfort.
Check in to the Raven Hotel and let this twelve shots of magic soothe your soul.
Album Releases June 24th. I will post the buy links here as soon as they are available. Or better yet, go to Matt’s website and sign up to receive his email to stay up to date on new music and gig dates.
– Kelly, TheCountryAngel
June 20, 2014
Matt Harlan’s third release, Raven Hotel, is a glimpse into the Texas singer/songwriter’s deepest thoughts. The intimately textured landscape is the musical equivalent of a small 12-room hovel on the side of the road, with each room containing a unique Harlan muse. From one room to another, pace and theme differ, but Harlan’s solid vocal registry and thought-provoking writing stay consistent. Harlan is a songwriter’s songwriter. Akin to Leonard Cohen, Harlan’s music relies on a signature delivery that suits himself better than it would others. The drama and import of the writing is inherent in the words and not in the execution, allowing Harlan to convey meaning without stretching or possibly distorting notes or lyrics. The addition of his wife’s (Rachel Jones) glassy vocals on tracks such as “Riding with the Wind” and “Slow Moving Train” add a spectrum of colour that Harlan’s cowboy consonance lacks, giving Raven Hotel a fuller form. Harlan’s blue collar focus is similar to Springsteen’s, most noticeable in the nostalgia-heavy “Raven Hotel.” The album departs briefly from an exclusively country emphasis with the folk-inspired “Old Allen Road.” Harlan’s vivid ability to orchestrate Spanish guitar, weighty double bass and accordion into a consciously political saga of the plight of migrant workers in the south is remarkably authentic and powerful. “Old Allen Road” is followed by the jazzy and fuzzy-snared “Burgundy and Blue,” a dexterous offering that demonstrates the range of Harlan’s subject matter and his cultivated song writing capacity. The brief departure from the norm is halted by the casual momentum of “Slow Moving Train,” which, as the title indicates, is the musical embodiment of a slow hazy convoy of westward pioneers. Raven Hotel is a very accomplished collection of insightful song writing. Harlan rarely misses the bar with his wrangler poetry and lassoed prose. (Berkalin Records)
– Mackenzie Herd, Exclaim
June 23, 2014
24-carat Texas folk/country songwriting is alive and well in Matt Harlan’s head and hands.
Raven Hotel was recorded at Ace Recording in Austin, Tex., as was Harlan’s debut Tips And Ccompliments (2009), On this go round, studio owner Rich Brotherton (Robert Earl Keen) and Harlan share the production credit. A few additions were captured in nearby Buda, at Bukka Allen’s Screen Door Studio. Boerne-bred, Houston-based artist Harlan’s third solo release is a twelve-song collection. He is supported here by Brotherton (acoustic/electric guitars, banjo, lap steel, dobro, bass, synth, vocals) and Allen (accordion, organ, piano), plus young Maddy Brotherton (violin), as well as time-served, local session suspects Floyd Domino (keyboards), Glenn Fukunaga (upright/electric bass), Jon Greene (drums, percussion), John Mills (tenor saxophone) and Mickey Raphael (harmonica), plus there are copious backing vocals from Harlan’s wife Rachel Jones.
Harlan was named Singer-Songwriter of the Year in the 2013 Texas Music Awards. Around a decade ago I (first) stumbled across him as a contestant in the University Songwriter Contest, which the Kerrville Folk Festival hosts annually. We met again in 2009 when Harlan placed in the Songwriter Contest during the annual Wildflower! Arts & Music Festival. In 2011, he scored the Telluride Troubadour title. That’s just a few of the songwriting accolades that have rightfully come his way. Still a relative youngster, his compositions consistently bear the hallmarks of a dyed-in-the-wool songwriting veteran, and that ain’t no Texas tall tale.
Maddy Brotherton’s fits-like-a-glove 20-second fiddle intro launches the waltz-paced opener “Old Spanish Moss.” A study of life’s ups and downs, you should always make time to “dance ‘neath the trees with that Old Spanish Moss.” Cranking the tempo up a couple of notches, “Half Developed Song” focuses on those occasions when “you wake up wrong” and “all your pieces they don’t seem to get along.”
Harlan is a master wordsmith, who selects with care and creates phrases that have this listener take many a sharp intake of breath. A prime example: “drive the day out of the night.” Sage advice “Drop it down a gear / the roads are slick this time of year” is proffered at the outset of cautionary road song “Second Gear”. Having added a harmony vocal on earlier songs, with Allen caressing the ivories, Rachel is the sole vocalist on the uptempo “Riding with the Wind”.
Allusion to the present (“I try every day to make one less mistake”) and the past (“he had lived and died so long before I walked across this land”) is woven into the fabric of “We Never Met (Time Machine)”. Launched by a gritty electric guitar, “Rock & Roll” is the full-tilt band song in this set, as Harlan waxes lyrical about American “hawks and doves”, politics, and foreign policy. “The Raven Hotel” lyric is a masked, yet subtle, analysis of the trade that Harlan plies. Built around the refrain “I’m in my own world now,” among numerous interludes, there’s a chance hotel lobby meeting with an old (musician?) friend, a half-way empty bottle (at 11:15pm), while, centre-stage, a guitar is sat “on the bed like some old preacher at confession.”
At a tad over six minutes, “Old Allen Road”, the album’s longest song, recalls the murder two decades ago of two Mexican immigrant farm-workers (“seems like a movie somehow”).
It’s a stretch to envisage Harlan decked out in tuxedo and bow tie crooning into a 1950’s microphone, yet the saxophone introduction to the jazz-inflected “Burgundy & Blue” certainly suggests that possibility. Therein, the narrator promises “One day I’ll buy you dresses / made of burgundy and blue.”
Aided by Raphael’s wistful harmonica, Matt and Rachel share the vocal on “Slow Moving Train”. The penultimate and bittersweet “The Optimist” is narrated by the dobro-playing road warrior Katherine Mary Lee, who reflects upon her muse (“sometimes I tune into empty pages”) and life (“the rain just means everyone’s allowed to cry”).
Our visit to the Raven Hotel closes with “Rearview Display”, a short, pragmatic and sweet eulogy to the tarmac strip that stretches endlessly to the horizon, penned by Harlan, Kerrville Festival veteran George Ensle and Oklahoma bred writer Buffalo Rogers.
By a clear mile, Raven Hotel is the finest song collection I’ve stumbled across this year — in many a year, for that matter. An ageless 21st Century creation in the mould of those classic 1970’s Texas folk/country songwriter