Describing Clay Harper’s latest solo album Dirt Yard Street as “raw” does a disservice to the word. Vocally, instrumentally and production wise, it’s the most organic slice of real-deal front porch (or kitchen table) folk-Americana you’ll probably ever here. The renowned Atlanta based musician – who launched the musical side of his life in the 80s with The Coolies, probably the only band to ever do punk covers of Simon & Garfunkel – isn’t shy about that slow drawl, organic reality either, allowing us to hear the room acoustics as he turns on the tape recorder and gets down to gritty, poetic business.
If you just know about his surface life as a recording artist, popular restaurateur and real estate magnate – including working as artist and producer with the likes of Brendan O’Brien, Stone Temple Pilots, CeeLo Green and others – Harper sounds like the Great American success story. But on this dark, stark, melancholy but ultimately just a tad hopeful collection, he draws on the painful chapters of his life (drug addiction, recovery, heartbreak, being a widower) to paint deeply personal and fascinating fictional portraits of life, as he says, “in Atlanta, Paris, France and New York – places I’ve lived but struggled to call home."
On the personal side, on the hypnotic acoustic guitar driven title track ballad, he addresses the beauty amidst the loneliness and bleak hopelessness of life in the New South – but offers a shard of light by repeating “I believe in my soul.” Over a hypnotic upright bassline and meditative piano on “Maybe I’ll Be There,” he chronicles his semi-autobiographical indifference to life and struggles to socially engage since his wife’s passing. He brings a sense of nostalgia and wistfulness to “Life on a Windowsill,” a slow burning meditation on the memory of walking down the whore track in Paris in the early 90s.
For the most part, he’s no more cheery (and no less compelling) when using fictional characters to tap into his emotional state on tracks like the jazz inflected“A Poem on a Pillow” (a story of a down and out child star seeking redemption) and “All The Mail Comes to My Neighbor,” about a guy struggling with suicidal thoughts and the meaninglessness of daily life. Harper’s storytelling is so compelling and the way her has us hinge on every line so seductive that most write ups will probably overlook the great soloing on cello, saxophone, guitar and piano throughout – but I won’t. Just as he’s overwhelming our senses with heavy emotion in his lyrics and vocals, he offers sensual solace with this fantastic musicianship that seems like an oasis before the next burst of heartbreak.