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
TIPS & COMPLIMENTS
Matt Harlan’s writing style takes me back to a time when songwriters shared insightful stories of toil and triumph. I remember spending countless youthful hours listening spellbound to great storytellers like Harry Chapin, Jim Croce, Kris Kristofferson, Nanci Griffith and being moved emotionally by what I was hearing. I challenge anyone to listen to Matt Harlan and tell me they are not moved emotionally by his stories. Matt Harlan’s debut entitled Tips & Compliments will surely be spun countless times on my CD player as I am sure others will succumb to this compulsive practice. The CD debuted at #1 on the Euro Americana Charts and features thirteen awesome tracks, each a hit in my opinion. From the emotionally touching story of bad news from Elizabethtown to Walter a recollection of childhood hours spent frolicking with his grandfathers dog, Matt Harlan digs deep and shares himself with those fortunate enough to discover his music.
I sincerely enjoyed meeting Matt as he did a guest appearance onHonky Tonk Happy Hour. Matt Harlan is a truly talented and gifted storyteller deserving of success. I urge all music fans to catch Matt Harlan live in concert – it is truly time well spent…
by Chris Harkness for MM55productions
If Chris Knight had a son with Lucinda Williams, he might - just might - turn out to be as good a musician as Boerne, Texas native Matt Harlan. That's a high compliment, but Matt Harlan's new release Tips & Compliments deserves all of the accolades it can collect.
The album begins with the Americana gem Elizabethtown. The lyrics and music penetrate the soul and build to a rousing chorus. The next track, Skinny Trees Of Mississippi, proves to be a winning demonstration of Harlan's significant vocal chops. Like Chris Knight, Harlan paints a full and complete picture of his surroundings, thoughts and feelings in his accomplished lyrics.
Traditional country music is well represented with the stellarSomething New, Over The Bridge and Warm November. Of the three, Over The Bridge has the best chance to be a major Texas country chart hit. Harlan's vocals fire on all cylinders, and the instrumentation is perfect. Texas radio program directors should add this song to their playlists immediately. The title track Tips And Compliments could also prove to be a popular radio single.
The most bluesy track on the album is the appropriately-titledSuitcase Blues. It is followed by the best track on the albumDriving Song. Harlan's vocal performance oozes sincerity for the woman he loves. Everybody Else is a classic singer-songwriter cut that could easily find a home on Sirius-XM's The Loft.
Waiting For Godot is a winning mixture of country, folk and bluegrass, and listeners should take special notice of the reflective Walter. The best pure country folk track is the remarkably serene You're Just Drunk, which might have the best lyrics of any cut on the album. The project ends with the heartfelt love song Dresses.
Matt Harlan's Tips & Compliments is an Americana gem that heralds the arrival of a major new music talent. In almost an hour, Matt Harlan shares the most intimate and interesting portions of his life in a musical package that deserves a wide audience. Matt Harlan certainly deserves a big heaping plate of compliments for his new album, and hopefully he'll be rewarded with a overloaded pocket full of tips, too. CountryChart.comTips and Compliments is the initial release from this Houston based songwriter, who is another of those fine singer/songwriters Texas seems to spawn -- must be something in the water. Harlan brought in Rich Brotherton to produce this disc of his songs, he wrote all but one and that one was co-written by him. This is a powerful introduction to this Texan who has already garnered a plethora of well-deserved accolades for his songwriting, including being a finalist on Prairie Home Companion's National Talent Show. His songs are written with an ability to get to the point in an expressive manner that also makes for spinning a good tale. His opening cut of Elizabethtown, is the edgy story of watching a 'brother' slide into drug use. He doesn't sugar coat the story and the effects on the family at all, he spins it straight. His songs contain those images that often stand stark naked in front of you causing you to stop and think.
He has some wonderful people playing with him on the disc; Rich Brotherton adds vocals, guitars, lap steel, mandolin, cittern and percussion; Warren Hood, fiddle; Riley Osbourn, keys; and Rankin Peters, upright and electric bass, to name but a few who stand out here. A well-crafted disc that is sure to help ratchet this songwriter's career up a hefty notch, and get him more of the audience he deserves.
–Bob Gottlieb (email@example.com)
For all of the attention that the Red-Dirt rockers get here in Texas (not that I am complaining), the softer voices that employ their lyrical perspective and vision – not chugging rhythms and screaming solos – to do the heavy lifting are often times over-looked or perhaps ignored by the larger audiences that reside outside of the coffee house acoustic gigs and hill-country campfire festivals.
Houston’s Matt Harlan has recently released a solid, pleasing folk-rock record that places him into the ranks of the latter-day troubadours that share his ability to locate drama in a scenario that would seem bland or dreary to the untrained, naked eye. Harlan’s debut offering, Tips & Compliments (Berkalin), is packed with stories that avoid both somber monotony as well as indulgent melodrama and instead follows a path that has been traveled recently by fellow Texans Owen Temple and Walt Wilkins and is dotted with tales of change, abuse and rediscovery. Harlan has some serious folk bona-fides here. He has won several noteworthy awards, and also has some talented friends helping out, most notably members of Robert Earl Keen’s band and even The Belleville Outfit.
Overall, Harlan’s debut is a shining example of how honesty, skill and heart can be heard just as loudly as the next rocking ode to Shiner Bock surely will be.
–18 November 2009 in CD Review, Music, Random, Texas Music, blah blah blah
Since the recent release of Tips & Compliments the album has been getting favorable write-ups in the U.S. and foreign press! Click on the links below to read. (HINT: check out Google Translate for foreign languages):
Johnny's Garden (Dutch)
Roots Highway (Italian)