Jason Hawk Harris / Thin Places (Bloodshot Records)
Jason Hawk Harris’s sophomore album opens with “Jordan And The Nile,” a song that adheres to traditional gospel themes. But as the melody builds and is carried by a sweeping string arrangement, it quickly reveals that Harris is far from a traditional songwriter. In fact, the Houston native, now based in Austin, earned a Master’s in classical composition at UCLA before releasing his 2019 debut album Love & The Dark. Thin Places finds Harris continuing to expand that approach with nine songs that balance up-tempo classic country, and, at times, FM soft rock, with lyrics that touch on different aspects of mourning. It’s an unusual mix to be sure, particularly on “The Abyss,” built upon a bouncy acoustic guitar riff in contrast to its shocking opening lines, “I kissed her hands in the ICU / Felt the lifeless skin against my lips, she’s gone for good.” The song eventually opens up with the hopeful chorus, “The little light of mine is shining,” and a vision of the dearly departed returning in a dream, but it illustrates Harris’s uncommonly healthy attitude toward grief. It is indeed strange to say that, for all of the references to death on Thin Places, it is a record that will likely find most listeners feel better after absorbing it. If that isn’t the true power of music, I’m not sure what is.
Sufjan Stevens / Javelin (Asthmatic Kitty Records)
Loyal fans of Sufjan Stevens have had to come to terms with the reality that his creative vision all-too-often exceeds the basic physical realities of making music. Like a modern-day Brian Wilson, Stevens’ unique ability to craft mini-symphonies has become one of the key touchstones for artists operating with the current pop scene, where genres have been obliterated. Javelin, his tenth album, follows 2021’s Convocations, a major compositional piece organized around the five stages of grief. Javelin, instead, finds Stevens returning to more conventional singer/songwriter territory in terms of song structure, although the inventive placement of strings, choirs and percussion heightens the drama in all the right places. Lyrically, as on the masterful “Everything That Rises” and “Genuflecting Ghost,” these moments come when Stevens, in familiar breathy tones, explores the importance of human contact and interaction. Javelin also concludes with a cover of Neil Young’s “There’s A World,” which notably strips back the original version’s infamously overblown production to an ethereal arrangement consisting of just fingerpicked guitar and a chorus of voices. It’s further proof that Stevens possesses the confidence to try anything, but whereas in the past it seemed he often bit off more than he could chew, Javelin finds him in full command of his faculties, resulting his most accessible album in years.
Jolie Holland / Haunted Mountain (Cinquefoil Records)
Fans of Vancouver’s The Be Good Tanyas (and the various solo careers the group spawned), should be keenly interested in this latest effort from founding member Jolie Holland, her first collection since the 2017 collaboration with fellow former Tanya, Samantha Parton. Having spent much of her career based variously in San Francisco, Austin, and New Orleans, Holland has always existed on the cutting edge of experimental Americana, and the nine-track Haunted Mountain finds her back in top form, drawing from her itinerant lifestyle to conjure a sense of total freedom. That’s certainly the spirit of one of the album’s highlights, “Highway 72,” a song that could have just as easily been written in 1923 as 2023. The difference between Holland’s songwriting approach as opposed to peers like Gillian Welch is that there’s never any question of its purity. As Holland sings in the title track, “All of my life I’ve been a rounder,” and that indeed is true. And although it may be a stretch to say Holland is Americana’s Billie Holliday, there’s a good case to be made after hearing the sparse “Orange Blossoms,” on which Holland’s voice weaves its way through a dark forest of emotions, emerging at the end scarred but smarter. Like all of Haunted Mountain, it’s a simply stunning performance.
SONG OF THE WEEK
Espanola / “On Halloween” (Sonic Unyon Records)