Honey Harper changes tack and hits the ball out of the park with their sophomore full length album.
Honey Harper is effectively the stage name of American Will Fussell and his Canadian wife, Alana Pagnutti, co-founder, co-writer and vocalist. For 5 years they lived in London, spending two of those creating and recording (in Paris, London and Budapest) their first album ‘Starmaker’ which found great favour with the critics in 2020 (March 6th to be precise, just before lockdown, which prevented proper promotion). ‘Starmaker’ is a wonderful album of Gram Parsons-inspired cosmic American music, a country album with added soaring strings and synths, and salutes to anyone from the Beatles to film composer John Williams, via Brian Eno and Fleet Foxes. Anything to avoid the commercialised Nashville country music scene.
Two years on and the couple have chosen to reset their creative approach. With a new band The Infinite Sky they produced, in LA, in two weeks, direct to tape, and selecting the best of the three live takes per track, a startlingly good self-titled album. Largely gone are the spacey cinematic orchestral flourishes and in their place are shimmering futuristic keyboards (Alex Fischel), soaring steel guitar (Connor Gallaher), electric and slide guitar (Jackson McIntosh) and gorgeous acoustic piano (John Carroll Kirby), creating an album with a strong country sensibility but embellished with tweaked instrumentals and retro-pop flourishes – Beatles-like harmonies on ‘Tired of Looking Good’, Elvis-style vocals on ‘Heaven knows I won’t be there’, and Bees-Gees sounding backing vocals on the stunning ‘Boots Mine Gold’. “No honky tonk could’ve saved my soul Like the DJs at down home discos Out on the floor in the moonlight glow Where dancing boots mine gold”
The first track ‘Reflections’, opens with chime-like futuristic keyboards before a reverbed electric guitar kicks in and an acoustic guitar strums a lovely riff, then Fussell’s deep voice kicks off the verse in quasi-Johnny Cash style, before soaring steel guitar joins the fray. After a gorgeous chorus, there is a spaghetti western style baritone guitar motif, which appears again a bit later before a long outro of duelling tweaked electric and steel guitars ending with a short, reverbed guitar again. There is nothing quite like it in country music and it is a dazzling start.
Fussell and Pagnotti have created a futuristic country album for our times. In the words of Spock ‘this is country, Jim, but not as we know it’. The songs all have the required country feel, but the arrangements, the choruses, the harmonies, the electronic refinements all combine to create a whole new country music listening experience, with so many influences that it is fun to try and pick them out. Fussell’s philosophy is contained in two lines from ‘Aint no Cowboys in Georgia’ – “I’m sick and tired of three chords and the truth and I think I’m ready for some computer blues”. His frustrations during lockdown are clear in ‘The Word’ (one of the album’s most country tracks) – “Are we still living our dreams, you asked me, and I said “ I’ve been waiting for this world to move and let me in Sometimes I’m so tired of making music I just wanna live But it’s all on me “.
Track after glorious track pours forth, often seeming to end too soon and leaving the listener wanting more. The last track ‘Big Sky ’is like a coda with the repeated gospel-style chorus “Big Sky in your window” before the long outro of wordless chorus, tinkling piano and assorted guitars. You can almost imagine a cloud being lifted from Fussell’s anxieties, and it is a nice allusion to the band’s name. Apparently, the band had 26 songs available to put on the album – a pity they didn’t use more of them, but it bodes well for the next outing. They hope to promote this album with a live tour, and if the sound is anything like the album, people are in for a treat. Reviewers have described their last album as country music for people who don’t like country music. This is country music for everyone and should rank high in any list of contenders for album of the year.