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Published: 2009/03/10
by Fady Kahlil

Big Red Sun – Alexis Harte

self-released

With nearly a decade since his first release, it’s safe to say that Northern California’s Alexis Harte has been at this a long time. But despite having vocal textures and song compositions which easily hold up against contemporaries Jose Gonzalez and Alexi Murdoch (his voice sounding like the former with the latter’s diversity in his repertoire), Harte hasn’t garnered nearly the same traction amongst fans. It’s time for a change, which is exactly what we get.

Big Red Sun, Harte’s fourth release, finds the Berkeley native taking a decidedly more serious direction in his music. To be sure, some of his brighter inclinations remain. The infectious Caribbean-folk that permeates his last album, Sunlight Loping reappears, albeit in a subdued version, on “My Way Out” and “Pot of Rainbow.” But more often than not, carefree songs collide with lyrics of an unexpected gravity, redirecting Harte’s playful flourishes towards sobering truths. The sum total is something akin to Nick Drake’s “Rider On The Wheel,” its light-hearted, woodsy dance built around serious introspection.

“Mayflies,” a number ostensibly about falling in love and getting married, finds upbeat folk strains halting to a sudden stop as Harte croons, “20 years ago, a wedding day now they sit in silence in a television haze soon they'll rest their heads in beds of loam for the leaves aren't falling, so much as drifting home.” His somber reflection on the souring of love stands at a far distance from the innocent frolics of past work, “Parrots,” a number about an escaping zoo bird.

The album's most topical piece, “Crows,” also delivers its darkest message. Harte, an ecologist, sings “Since the year of my birth, half the songbirds have left the earth and the crows are taking over,” alluding to the plight of birds pushed to extinction. The musical landscape comes replete with a myriad of industrial, metallic clangs. With exacting precision, bassist Randy Weaver and drummer Aaron Brinkerhoff create a sound void of any organic warmth, instead crafting a world in peril, sonically realized.

And though sugar-coated illusions are scarce on Big Red Sun, I never had the feeling that this was a depressing ordeal. Indeed it was hopeful. “For Tuesday” Harte sings “I know one day, time will take your love away from me.” But this darkest of human truths allows Harte to shine with an incandescent glow as he continues “So did I say thank you, for Tuesday? Did I say? Because I felt fine, it was a good day.”

With a simple juxtaposition, Harte points out the inevitably of loss, and in the same breath the importance of appreciation. He paints a picture of impending environmental detonation, but does so as an avoidable catastrophe, a what-if scenario we should hope to never see. Though he’s traded in parrots for crows, there is no less hope on Big Red Sun. He just refuses to hold your hand to find it. He isn’t raining on the dance, he’s dancing in the rain, and I suspect those who listen will join him.

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