Houston favorite, Matt Harlan is a troubadour of the first degree, bringing his handcrafted songs to stages across his home state of Texas, the USA and Europe.
Recording and releasing new collections every few years, his first four studio albums drew ample praise from national and international Americana music lovers - landing in ears and on charts - setting the stage for the 2019 release of “Best Beasts” his fifth (and possibly best) record to date.
Harlan is a winner of multiple songwriting accolades, from outfits like American Songwriter, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and Billboard. He was even named Singer-Songwriter of the Year in the 2013 Texas Music Awards and featured alongside a stellar cast of characters (Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark) in the documentary, “For the Sake of the Song.”
In his travels, Matt has shared stages big and small with celebrated local music friends (Jimmy Pizzitola, Little Outfit, Gabe Wootton, Will Van Horn), Americana greats (Guy Clark, James McMurtry, Steve Earle) and modern luminaries alike (John Fullbright, Adam Carroll, Jamie Lin Wilson, Hayes Carll).
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From the duality in each individual to the current bipartisan rift in politics and the world at large, Matt Harlan’s latest album, Best Beasts confronts the issues head-on.- Gladys Fuentes, Houston Press
Harlan’s characters often seem lost in a world controlled by more powerful forces, struggling to get through another day and trying to find meaning and purpose that may not exist. To his credit, he doesn’t claim to have all the answers. “We’re just trying to be the best beasts we can be,” he sings in the title track. “And find a way to sleep, don’t dig too deep.”- Paul T. Mueller, Americana One
“Best Beasts” in the simplest sense can be filed under folk or singer-songwriter recordings. But Harlan on this record takes his biggest instrumental swing. He’s just subtle about it. So there’s the obligatory voice (and his is an achingly expressive one, yet conversational and never prone to excess) and guitars, but also colors of violin, banjo, keyboards, accordion, pedal steel guitar, cello, dobro… . The sound beautifully meets Harlan’s lyrics, growing in grandiosity when needed, receding to the background when a song is better served by simple silence.- Andrew Dansby, Houston Chronicle
“By a clear mile, Raven Hotel is the finest song collection I’ve stumbled across this year — in many a year, for that matter”.- Folk Villager, No Depression
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.
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.
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.- Mackenzie Herd, Exclaim