Even on a stage packed with the pros, legends, and indie rock heroes gathered to perform Big Star's Third, Brett Harris often elicited the "Who's that guy?" response from audiences and critics alike. Harris just seemed to know how to bring out the ache in Alex Chilton's cracked gems.
The vocal skills of the thirty-two-year-old Durham singer-songwriter have become so appreciated that he sidetracked his own music in order to take part in various impossible-to-deny collaborations. Up in the Air, released this week, is his first long-player in six years. It is well worth the wait. Up in the Air makes a compelling case for Harris as an undeniable singer and a songwriter.
Harris's 2010 solo debut, Man of Few Words, mixed sophisticated pop in the Bacharach vein with folk and Americana. Some of the adult contemporary sensibility remains here, but Harris's palette has shifted toward a musical vocabulary established by Big Star and the Beach Boys, alongside his beloved Beatles.
Over ten songs, Up in the Air resists settling into any one mood or idiom. The intricate "End of the Rope," anchored by a guitar figure that feels plucked from a lost British Invasion hit, gallops like a kid who's just gotten his first kiss. It's an instant grabber that pulls you toward the unexpected. "Out of the Blue," a paean to love, sports a sumptuous melody worthy of Harry Nilsson or even ELO. Motown strings sweeten the bar-band blues of "Summer Night," while "Spanish Moss" begins in a glade before church-pure harmonies enter. "Steal away with me tonight," Harris entreats.
In covering such vast stylistic ground, Harris shows a willingness to submerge the grain of his voice in service of the song. Still, tunes that feature his voice up front—like the languid Muscle Shoals gospel-soul of "High Times" or the charming title track—offer the greatest evidence of his distinctiveness.
Occasionally the rhyme schemes are predictable, and by the penultimate "Shade Tree," despite its charms, you may detect one Beatle-esque descending progression too many. These are minor quibbles on an album with manifold standouts. This is a dreamily good record that you want to play all the way through, perhaps even again immediately. That's perfect, really, since it's historically taken Harris a while to get around to the next one.
Brett Harris appears Friday, March 4 at Cat's Cradle Back Room in Carrboro. Tickets are $8-$10, the show starts at 8 p.m.
This article appears in print with the headline "Sooner and Later."