Jesse Harris is one of those musicians that you don’t know you know, but you do. Throughout his career, he has collaborated with and/or written songs recorded by Bright Eyes, Willie Nelson, Madeleine Peyroux, Emmylou Harris, Cat Power, M. Ward, Pat Metheny, and Feist. Yeah… pretty damn impressive. Recently, Harris wrote the soundtrack to Ethan Hawke’s upcoming film, The Hottest State, after Hawke handpicked him for the job. But if he still doesn’t sound familiar, then you’d probably recognize him as the guy who wrote many of the songs on Norah Jones’ breakthrough record, Come Away with Me, including the hit “Don’t Know Why”. By now, Harris is probably sick of being referred to as that guy, but being known as the musician who created one of the biggest pop hits of the last decade that was actually musically solid ain’t a situation to pity.
To characterize Harris as a mere sideman or collaborator, though, would be to shortchange his talent. After all, it was his already-established reputation as an accomplished musician and songwriter that led to his collaboration with Jones, and he’s created an impressive body of work with his former band, the Ferdinandos. If anything, Harris has been collectively shortchanged throughout his career; while others have taken his songs or contributions and built towering and lucrative careers upon them, he has remained relatively obscure. Harris, however, rolls on, more devoted to the art than the attention it might draw.
His latest solo effort, Feel, was recorded in a whirlwind three-day stint, a fact made more amazing by the album’s sound. Feel, you see, isn’t the kind of album that’s banged out in 72 hours, for while it’s an uncomplicated listen, it’s not an unsophisticated one. Combining folk simplicity with jazz textures and exotic percussion, it’s an album of true artistic labor, one that reveals Harris’ broad musical knowledge and songwriting promise. But does he deliver on that promise? Well, yes. And no.
What’s most evident is that Harris knows how to mingle musical styles with ease. Tracks like “Walk On” and “Shadow” draw from numerous genres without belonging to any of them. Folk fingerpicking is seamlessly blended with jazzy vibraphone; bluesy organ hides beneath African rhythms. Likewise, “Fire On the Ocean” exists somewhere between calypso and reggae, but again defies being categorized in either genre. And if all of that isn’t enough of a musical mosaic, Harris breaks out the banjo on “How Could It Take So Long?” and “I Would”. With so many styles in one album, things could easily go awry, but here they sound organic and harmonious.
As a singer, Harris is competent, though not impressive, which is fine for his music. His melodies may hover in a rather restricted vocal range, but his songs don’t call for bombastic balladry or climatic crescendos. Whether intentional or not, his voice often sounds reminiscent of Paul Simon, though it clearly lacks the range. Lyrically, the album is winsome, though ultimately slight, dealing with the usual themes of love and longing. The narrator in many of the songs, such as “Where to Start” and “You and Me”, sounds like someone falling into or out of love for the first time, the naivety both endearing and cloying.
The main drawback to the album—and it’s rather major—is that it all begins to sound a bit the same a third of the way into the track listing. All of the tunes are soft and understated, airy and restrained. The effect is pleasant and relaxing at first, but yawn-inducing after a while. Many of the individual songs feel like they’re working up to something big, but never do; string together a few of these songs, and you’ve got an album that does—or doesn’t do—the same.
All of this leads to a rather odd conclusion. Feel is a perfectly lovely album, packed with songs that are crafted with subtlety and charm. Though Harris recorded this album in a frenzy of creativity, it feels like every nuance was carefully considered and placed within the best possible context. The result is an album that is soft and lovely, but ultimately to its own detriment. After a while, you forget the music is playing, and it simply disappears without leaving much of an impact. Indeed, it almost demands that you do something else—cook, read a book, entertain—for it to be enjoyed, for it’s not engaging enough to assume the forefront of your attention. Little wonder, then, that Hawke turned to Harris to make soundtrack music. The guy is a natural at it.