Behind the success of Norah Jones’s Grammy winning smash “Don’t Know Why” is a voice that few would recognize. Contemporary pop music fans rarely acknowledge the distinct contribution a songwriter like Jesse Harris can bring to the mix. The Grammy for Song of the Year goes to the songwriter, but all the pictures from the morning after the ceremony featured Jones and her clutch of statues. That’s the lasting impression.
Harris stands ready to stake his claim as a singer-songwriter with The Secret Sun. The attentive listener will be rewarded by the work of a simple storyteller who uses both music and words to create songs that feel like independent film shorts. I’m curiously reminded of the down-home ease of Billy Bob Thornton during the quieter moments of Slingblade before the threat of violence creeps into the mix. If he were a filmmaker, Harris would definitely be a Sundance Film Festival regular, a politely earnest young man waiting on the fringe.
The roots-rock flavor of The Secret Sun is pleasantly competent and assured, but these songs never blossom beyond coffeehouse sketches of life. There are no memorable melodies or lines and with 12 tracks running at less than 42 minutes, Harris doesn’t give himself time to build a good thematic head of steam. The set would have benefited from a quirk or two along the lines of Lyle Lovett or the storytelling edge of Robbie Robertson, whose narratives defined the Band and eventually led to some inspired film score collaborations with Martin Scorsese before he embarked on a noteworthy solo career that has been marked by his appreciation of his Native American roots.
Harris’s strained vocals also limit the proceedings. He lacks the middle-of-the-road pop timbre of John Mayer and the hushed jazz stylings of Jones who offers front and center assistance on “What Makes You” and background texture to “If You Won’t”. But the real damage can be felt on a full-tilt rocker like “You Were on My Mind”, which I can’t image him pulling off convincingly outside the studio or the makeshift stage in his garage.
But, to stretch the film analogy further, he’s the writer-cinematographer who takes the reins for the first time and produces a work of promise that needs a quicker, stronger follow-up. Ideally, his voice will develop its own unique quality to complement and strengthen his vision.