Jesse Harris will never live down his collaboration with Norah Jones on her much slobbered-over debut, Come Away With Me, or the Grammy he received for writing the ubiquitous “Don’t Know Why.” But it’s no fluke. The man writes a good goddamn song.
Harris had a brush with success earlier with Once Blue, his band with Rebecca Martin, releasing a critically lauded debut for EMI in 1995. That band’s second record was never released, and Harris decided to start a band and try and make it outside the Business. Harris and his sidekicks, the Ferdinandos, have had moderate success with three independent releases and regular gigs in Manhattan. The work has paid off: Harris writes the songs he wants to write, and his band has the kind of effortless interplay that can only be developed over time. And his band has remained his focus, despite the Norah Jones brouhaha.
The Secret Sun is a collection of 12 Harris-penned gems. The songs are only as long as they need to be, which sometimes means as short as two minutes. The arrangements are pristine, but an infectious energy stemming from the roomy production and the fraternal rapport of the band members keeps it from becoming too pristine. World Party and Paul Simon both come to mind, arrangement-wise, as does Come Away With Me.
Depending on the quality of the song, Harris’s simple lyrics come across as either charming and winsome or flat and trite. “Long Way From Home” sounds like a smoky standard right out of the classic American songbook. So “Sleep again won’t come to me/ I walk outside, the galaxies and stars surround/ the whole world like a dome/ I’m still alone/ And I’m feeling like I’m a long, long way from home” works. However, “Gazing out into space/ We spend the endless day/ When wine like water flows/ And light falls on the rose,” from the forgettable “The Other Road,” does not.
Two tracks in particular stand out on Secret Sun. “What Makes You,” a duet with Norah Jones, absolutely slays. It could have been an outtake from Rumours. And the descending, fibrous melody of the title track’s chorus is addictive enough to land it on many a mix tape.
There are several of throwaway tracks, such as the predictable rocker “You Were on My Mind” and a pedestrian rendering of the traditional “Roberta.” Also, as with other nasally crooners like Neil Young, the album won’t work if you can’t take Harris’s voice. But there are enough timeless tunes here to look back fondly even after the first listen. So stick Secret Sun in your carousel right after Come Away With Me (come on, you know you own it — you were the first one to buy it, right?), hop in your hammock, and think about something nice.