Part Time Criminal
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Performers tend to dig in to angst, because of how it reads emotionally. Happiness in a vocal can come off as insipid, where dread and fear sound deep. It's the same reason our attention often gravitates toward strangers brooding away from the group, while the smiling person is thought to be high, dumb, or, perhaps both. The treat of singer-songwriter Bryan Haraway's self-titled debut is that it's smart and engaging, but also happy. Haraway proves that albums don't have to be drenched in anxiety or distress to be entertaining.
Haraway's sound is Americana mixed with a bit of classic rock (lower case “C,” meaning ‘50s and early ‘60s rock, rather than big “C” arena rock). His voice is pleasant and playful. He sounds like he's happy to be singing. Even on slower, down-tempo songs. It's not about every song sounding poppy and every melody being sunny. Haraway just seems genuinely content to be singing to us.
The upbeat tone is aided by the presence of horns, which make just about everything sound happier (except, maybe, a New Orleans-style funeral). "Alive" swings with a ‘50s beat, aided by horns, some huge organ, and lush background vocals. "We Get High," with its pop-candy chorus, is also lifted by Haraway's horn section. And even the one track without happy horns, "Lucia," which has Spanish-inspired guitar, a chorus reminiscent of Jay and Americans' "Come a Little Bit Closer," but a sad trumpet line, is still somehow optimistic.
"Moonlighting" is driven by a handclap of a beat and is, perhaps, the most Haraway song on the album. There's subtle pedal steel, country guitar, and a sock-hop groove. He presides over it gladly and proudly, a smartly layered song made to sound simple and effortless. Which is Haraway's gift (as well as his producer, Chad Brown's): making rich, interesting songs that initially hit you as light and simple but that are deceptively complex.
There are some darker songs here. "How It Is" has a bit of Jason Isbell/Drive-By Truckers country introspection. "My Song" is quiet and spiritual, built upon simple acoustic guitar and celestial background vocals. But the lyrics are optimistic, even if the music is somber: "I believe in ever after / I believe that it's me I must forgive."
Haraway has created a special debut. There are few things more difficult than for an album to be both smart and happy and Haraway has accomplished that here. Although happy is an oversimplication of the many moods and tones of the album, there's an underlying joy that makes it a genuinely pleasant listen. There's something refreshing about an album that challenges the listener, without bumming them out. There's a throwback energy to this album, hearkening back to the days when it was cool to be in a good mood.
Notable Tracks: "Alive" | “Moonlighting” | "My Song" | “We Get High”