On the bracing opening track of his new album, Kyp Harness reflects "I never got the secret handshake." That perhaps references his continued status as an underdog, a maverick not accepted by the in crowd. Yes, the prolific Toronto songsmith has earned serious respect from peers like Ron Sexsmith, Daniel Lanois and Mary Margaret O'Hara, but his extensive discography remains underappreciated.
Arguably his finest work, 13th album Stoplight Moon may change that, but the odds remain against him. The prevailing taste for male folk-inflected singer/songwriters these days is for those with wispy ethereal voices, and Harness certainly doesn't have one of those. His is direct, blunt even, and possesses a slightly nasal drawl that on punkish tunes here like "Restaurant Of Love" evokes Gordon Gano of Violent Femmes. Harness's key strength is as a lyricist (he's about to publish his first novel), and his potent pen here tackles personal themes, rather than the socio-political slant of 2014's Armageddon Blues. He's not afraid to hang his heart out on display, as on the moving "Still Learning," inspired by the birth of a child. Pain, loss and love are focused upon in other material here, as on "I Hurt," a stone-cold country cut that hopefully some big name will cover.
Helping provide the intriguingly varied musical setting for Harness's songs is producer John Critchley (Dan Mangan, Amelia Curran, Elliott Brood) and an A-list group of players, including Brian Kobayakawa (Serena Ryder), pedal steel ace Burke Carroll (Justin Rutledge) and violinist Shelley Coopersmith (Critchley also plays guitar and keyboards). A flugelhorn solo adds colour to the eloquent "Where The Spirit Resides," as does an Irish tin whistle on "Growing Pain." This is a musically adventurous and lyrically fearless gem. (Independent)