Tuesday, September 2, 2014
Have Another Listen: Kevin Morby’s Harlem River
Date: September 2nd, 2014
On the Friday before last, Kevin Morby (best known as bassist of the psych-folk outfit Woods and singer/guitarist of winsome garage-rock band The Babies) played a set of solo material from 2013’s “Harlem River” at Baby’s All Right in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The show was an intimate one, which was not so much a consequence of the venue’s small size - surprisingly little nudging was required to secure a spot up front – but a result of the inherent intimacy of Kevin Morby’s songwriting.
Appearing on stage in a slightly oversized red button-down to match his candy-red Jaguar, Kevin Morby seems exhausted - the bags under his eyes hung so prominently on his face that it seemed at first glance as though he’d been in a brawl the night before. Morby’s appearance onstage gave new significance and just plain truth to the lyrics of “Harlem River’s” opening track, “Miles, Miles, Miles:” “If y’knew the depths I’d wandered/Or measure that hole that I’m in/If y’knew just how far I traveled/Then, maybe then, only then…”
More than any other album I’ve listened to in a while - the exception being quite definitely Angel Olsen’s “Burn Your Fire for No Witness” (2014) - “Harlem River” really lets you inside; as a listener, it compels you to nestle within the array of musical textures that Morby has so deftly arranged. From the shimmering chords of “Slow Train” and the meandering bass-line of “Miles, Miles, Miles” to the rollicking shuffle time of “Reign” and Morby’s quick, bluegrassy finger-picking on “If You Leave and If You Marry,” there’s a seemingly inexhaustible reserve of sonic nuances to be picked from the album’s soundscape.
But what I want to focus on here is Harlem River’s title track, which is the album’s keystone, keeping “Harlem River’s” whole airy architecture aloft. Clocking in at a little over nine minutes, “Harlem River” is a protracted love song to the city of New York, from which Morby recently left after a number of years for the warmer climes of Los Angeles. “I had kind of burnt out on New York at that point,” Morby said in an interview of the song’s subject and namesake, “and this area in the north of Manhattan, something about it up there is really nice. It’s really peaceful. I don’t think it’s the most desirable river in the world; it’s this dirty, gross river, but there’s something about it I really like.” “Harlem River” is sort of the culmination of the lonely wayfaring aesthetic Morby gropes at in the other songs on the album. With a pleasantly congested Midwestern lilt, Morby has found solace on the quiet, lapping shores that separate northern Manhattan and the Bronx; “Harlem River talk to me/Tell me what you think about/Harlem River I’m in love, love, love, love.” But it’s a love that is requited only after you’ve left for good: “And ride on/ that easy rider/Flow like, that Harlem River…I ride for you.”
“Harlem River” is also probably one of the most undeservedly overlooked albums in recent years. Note the nice but, finally, lackluster review on Pitchfork, in which Jeremy Gordon writes, “Harlem River is mostly concerned with different shades of subtlety, which makes the rare overt moments stick out like an anarchy patch on a wedding dress,” not a bad quality for a record to possess by any means, but then he gives the album a 7.0/10. I suppose we can argue for days about the arbitrariness of Pitchfork’s rating system. My recommendation would be to give the album a listen, or better yet see if you can catch Morby perform these songs live, and decide for yourself if Harlem River deserves what amounts to a C+. In my mind, it’d be a mistake to pass over this album too quickly.