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)