For those, including this reviewer, who considered JR Harbidge’s debut solo album First Ray of Light one of 2018’s highlights then you are in for a treat as his recently released Long Black River picks up where he left off three years ago. Previously his melodic country rock sound was fairly stripped back, this new record has more polish, more production but his original take on the mid 1970s Laurel Canyon sound remains intact. Harbidge’s priority is melody with harmonies floating on an arc of guitars from solid electric to delicate acoustic and shimmering keyboard runs. Long Black River is tight. To Harbidge’s country he adds folk, rock, pop, blues. If the term existed back in the 1970s JR Harbidge’s records would be found under ‘Americana’.
Harbidge started his musical life young and as befits a man from the West Midlands it began with metal. But even as he trod the boards of the Birmingham club scene the name of his band, Powderfinger, may have offered a clue towards his solo direction. Neil Young pops up frequently in Harbidge’s solo albums, both acoustically and electric. Harbidge’s dad taught his son well by introducing him also to CSN, Dylan, Jackson Browne and The Eagles.
But JR Harbidge is his own man and certainly no tribute act to a long passed, though essential, era. Being tighter and more direct than its predecessor, Long Black River is the perfect introduction to his music.
Harbidge is a perfectionist. He began the opener, ’Wrong Side Of The Fight’ when he was fifteen but he had never satisfied himself with its melody. Waves of acoustic guitar and organ ripple through The Eagles to Tom Petty. In a voice that glints with Californian sunshine Harbidge reflects, “Help me resolve my contradiction/ I hope it’s not too late”.
Another song that’ has been on the stocks for years is ‘Break The Spell’. The organ intro weaves into electric to create a sense of foreboding to match the lyric of shadows, doubt and uncertainty. While Harbidge relies on personal experience for most of his material ‘We Don’t Talk About It’ steps back to tell the story of two parents falsely accused of abducting their own children. Prompted by a tv drama he puts himself in that desperate situation. The sharp contrast between acoustic verse and big production chorus deepens the tragedy.
On a happier note ‘Sunshine Not Rain’ is a rolling carefree celebration of his own son. “When I saw you and you said my name/ I had a feeling I was saved” comes across just like the sun itself coming out and the expansive country sound just magnifies the feel good effect.
It is back to Laurel Canyon though for ‘Side By Side’. Through the Hammond organ swirl a lonely harmonica matches the searching vocal. A song of unity against adversity Harbidge found inspiration in the WW2 poet Martin Niemöller. The harmonica may come straight from ‘Harvest’ but the arrangement is all Harbidge’s own work, the sombre but purposeful acoustic strum and organ add determination.
More country comes in ‘You Saved Me Twice’ with its anthemic chorus that soars high above the gentle verses. ‘When The Sun Doesn’t Shine’ is a brisk, nostalgic, CSNY harmonising sharpened with a snappy clap into the chorus.
‘We Don’t Like It’ shows Harbidge hasn’t quite shaken off his heavier roots. This is pure rock that thrashes along to a surge of guitars and keys. The switch into mono and back adds to the menace all round. The album closes with the title track, a ballad around conspiracy. Sultry verse cascades into a magnificent chorus with a guitar solo to hail Jimmy Page. Harbidge rocks out majestically.
Special mention must go to the band, particularly Pete Larkin’s keys as well as the rhythm section of Mark Bates and Thomas Mapes. Written, produced and mixed by Harbidge, Long Black River has at its source a sparkling west coast 1970s sound that twists and turns through country, rock, blues, folk into a broad estuary of sound. It is a cruise that comes highly recommended.