Quality musicianship is always in fashion.
Old-Time music seems to be doing very well these days and the success of bands like Old Crow Medicine Show and, more recently, the Dead South, would suggest that audiences are keen to hear acoustically played music that draws on older, more traditional styles of roots music; so Harley Kimbro Lewis would seem to be in the right place at the right time with their debut, eponymously titled, album.
The trio are Martin Harley, established British singer-songwriter with a reputation as something of a blues slide player, Daniel Kimbro, the Grammy-nominated bass player with the Jerry Douglas Band and the Earls of Leicester, and Sam Lewis, a Nashville based singer-songwriter who Chris Stapleton dubbed “a modern Townes Van Zandt”. So far, so very impressive and, with such an impressive line-up, you’d expect the music to be good, and this album doesn’t disappoint. Opening track ‘Grey Man’, sets the tone of the album very well and lets you know exactly what this album is all about – decent songs, well played and sung. The harmonies from the trio are particularly good and this first song shows off Harley’s slide playing very nicely. It also shows off the clean lines of the production, which is very crisp indeed, each instrument clearly heard and the vocals nicely separated from the backing instruments. And that, really, sums up the album. These guys really do play exquisitely well together and it all sounds so effortless which, of course, is the trick of outstanding musicians – to make their music sound so simple when it’s often very complex indeed. Listening to the album you can really hear the individual contributions and how well it all contributes to the whole sound.
A number of the songs here are simple stories about the world about us, like ‘Neighbours’, that talks about the various people in Sam Lewis’ neighbourhood, him being the writer of this track, “My favorite neighbors live down the street I see them every other day/ If we lived any closer to one another we’d run out of things to say”. Similarly ‘I Got a Chair’, written by Kimbro and Lewis, seems to be a stream of consciousness list of the things they could see looking round the house, “Well I gotta chair at home that squeaks/ I gotta rug at home that stinks/ Hardwood floor that kinda dips/ A kitchen tap that always drips/ Yellow sponges thrown away/ Fruit flies come back every day”. These sound a little twee, looked at in this way, but they work because they’re delivered with a suggestion of a tongue in the cheek and the feeling that the band are having more than their fair share of fun. Elsewhere we get songs about a petty wheeler-dealer, ‘Good Guy’ (“I’m not a real good man, I’m a real good guy to know”), life on the road (‘Rosary’), and having your heart broken by the local femme fatale (‘Creepin’ Charlie’). There’s even a song about an unusual daydream – ‘Cowboy in Hawaii’! all good songs with the writing credits fairly evenly distributed around the trio. In fact, all the songs are very good, as already stated, and what you get with this album is quality at every step – good songs, well written and well sung; the playing is superb throughout and the production very nice indeed. The album was produced at Nashville’s Wow & Flutter Studios and done as live in the studio, with the band writing the songs just before they recorded them, so there’s a freshness to the sound and the enjoyment of the musicians clearly comes across. What you don’t get is much in the way of excitement. None of these tracks gets much above a slow, jogging tempo and there’s a laid back, relaxed feel about the album that’s very easy to drift along with without getting too involved. That’s its main problem; it could risk becoming background music because off its lack of attention grabbing dynamics. Because of that it may not appeal to everyone, but for anyone who appreciates good musicianship, there is much to be admired here.
If you like your Americana superbly played and sounding like an old friend that you can just sit back with over a glass of good whisky then this is, most definitely, an album for you. It’s not going to set your pulse racing, but that isn’t always a bad thing.