Aquarelle exudes lightness and freedom in spirit.
Jesse Harris’ 2003 Grammy award for Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why” naturally speaks volumes for his songwriting talent, while his behind-the-scenes work producing and collaborating with Bright Eyes, Julian Lage, Solomon Burke and Madeleine Peyroux reveals a musician not only adept at crossing genres but breathing life and inspiration into recording sessions. With his solo albums in the double digits, Harris has proven himself to be a songwriter with ambitions to grow and experiment.
Harris’ latest album, Aquarelle, unifies solitary songwriting, worldly inspiration and spot-on collaboration. Loaded with an album’s worth of songs, Harris recorded Aquarelle in Lisbon with a pair of friends and frequent collaborators: guitarist Will Graefe and drummer Jeremy Gustin, who happened to be in Europe performing at a music festival. Inspired by the food, architecture and ambiance of the exotic locale, Aquarelle exudes lightness and freedom in spirit, a fascinating new direction in Harris’ musical ventures.
Leadoff track “Rolling By” blends a dream-pop atmosphere with curiously syncopated, finger-plucked guitar accompaniment. It’s easy to hear the soothing call of Mediterranean sunsets and placid beaches in the song’s vibe, something just as apparent in the easygoing “Out of Time.” Both tracks feature a tasteful use of electric guitar melodies that seem to shine technicolor light against the laidback, rolling groove set by Gustin and Harris. The intricate polyphonic texture of instrumental number “Hexagram” fuses electric guitar, acoustic guitar, drums and violin into a hypnotic swirl that romances without ever sounding too busy.
Aquarelle’s production doesn’t dive into pastiche Latin vibes or sorrowful Fado numbers. Listen carefully and you can hear how Portugal inspired the album’s construction by pushing each track into sonic realms that NYC, Harris’ longtime home, likely wouldn’t inspire, just as the sensual lilt of the Portuguese language and striking black and white cobblestone of Lisbon’s distinctive roads give visitors an impression of something both familiar yet not. Yet even amid the scenic landscapes of “The Things That You Can’t Keep” and “Eyes of Fire,” some moments subvert the sunshine and coastal charm. Valerie June’s guest vocals on “Listen to the Wind” are lovely, but compared to the ethereal sensibility of prior tracks, her duet with Harris almost sound a little harsh, grounding the album when is otherwise about to drift away into reverie.
The songwriting throughout Aquarelle, divorced from the stellar production values, depict Harris’ evolution as a songwriter. There’s still a sense of introspection and value placed on immediate concerns, a focus on the themes and ideas in the present moment rather than grandiose rumination about the world at large. For such a bright record, the gloomy “Sunday” stands out as perhaps the album’s best track. Anyone can write a song about heartbreak and love absconded, yet the melody and harmony elevate the track into something wonderful and timeless.
The two-beat and escapist lyrics of closing track “Sometimes You Have to Choose Sides” is a simple, albeit joyful, way to close out the record. With jangling guitars and a shining piano, the track recalls “Penny Lane” as Harris hits the chorus, harmonizing with singer Sophia Brous and closing out the record on a sweet note. It’s the kind of song that dares you not to sing along after the first listen, and a beautiful way to close out an impressive record.