David Ryan Harris - Lightyears (2015)

David Ryan Harris
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David Ryan Harris - Lightyears

Veteran Atlanta-bred singer-songwriter David Ryan Harris is probably best known in a certain lane for his recent guitar work with fellow troubadour John Mayer, but Harris is and has been so much more than a notable sideman for a celebrity pop star. He’s also long been a boundary pusher and visionary that came before his time. Now in this landscape where hybrid material is commonplace, the world is finally ready for Harris and what his optimistic work has long had to say. In some ways, what Harris is doing now is almost safe and conventional in a Darius Rucker kind of way, routine even, but in its tight melodies and steadfast hope in love, it is its own subversion in an industry celebratory of compositional ADHD and musical nihilism. 

David Ryan Harris - Lightyears

Veteran Atlanta-bred singer-songwriter David Ryan Harris is probably best known in a certain lane for his recent guitar work with fellow troubadour John Mayer, but Harris is and has been so much more than a notable sideman for a celebrity pop star. He’s also long been a boundary pusher and visionary that came before his time. Now in this landscape where hybrid material is commonplace, the world is finally ready for Harris and what his optimistic work has long had to say. In some ways, what Harris is doing now is almost safe and conventional in a Darius Rucker kind of way, routine even, but in its tight melodies and steadfast hope in love, it is its own subversion in an industry celebratory of compositional ADHD and musical nihilism. 

The years with Mayer are somewhat evident in the quiet simplicity that isn’t musically simple at all, hallmarks of Mayer’s work, a casual facility in which memorable melodies are seemingly plucked out of mid-air and laid down with just the right lyrics and chords. On Harris’s fourth full-length release in 18 years, the minimalist Lightyears, there are certainly shared musical sensibilities to be found in the acoustic soul work of Harris and Mayer. It’s not entirely a surprise, since Harris has largely spent the better part of a decade touring with Mayer since Harris’s 2006 solo project, Bittersweet. Some flavors and approaches to song can’t help but seep in when playing that long with anyone.

Not that Mayer deserves much credit for a hybrid, rootsy Americana meets Black music traditions sound Harris has been consistently cultivating since 1991, when Harris was better known as a then rare Black rocker with the band Follow For Now. Harris joins others that he has written for, collaborated with, and with whom he shares obvious influences, most prominently mid-career Stevie Wonder, artists like Santana, India.Arie, Marc Broussard, and Dave Matthews to name but a few. As a producer and guitarist, Harris was also a contributing force behind Dionne Farris’s 1995 cult classic debut, Wild Seed – Wild Flower. The point of mentioning these bio elements and enviable collabo listings at all is because these factoids help situate Harris’s latest work as an inheritor of many of the familiar sounds and less familiar genre-blending that comprise the acoustic/soul pop/folksy/country rock/singer-songwriter catchall that is Lightyears. Consistently, Harris’s work is all of these things at once, which is why the fact that it feels incredibly uncomplicated and relaxed is something of a technical and creative triumph.

Melodies are the strongest suit on an acoustic guitar-driven project that is consistently well sung with a soothing voice that can transition between soulful cajoling to gravelly rocker growls effortlessly. The clean productions are aces as well, similar to what one might find in the hands of Craig Street, only at times fuller than Street’s work, with subtle layers of harmonies and surprising instrumental accents.

However, the songs here live or die based on the strength of their melodies. Even more so since much of the lyricism is tidily written and thematically traffics in familiar territory about devotional, declarative, and inspirational love in its many facets - that is when Harris isn’t writing about bright hopes for tomorrow. Not particularly groundbreaking or clever, but vitally necessary in our doom, gloom, and drugged out musical now. So the sonic neatness and professional polish of Lightyears either rises to meet an air bound melody or is swallowed into the abyss of forgettable sameness that blurs into a gauzy coffeehouse sound of navel-gazing artists performing in skullies and fingerless gloves. There is no middle ground here. 

The scales tilt decidedly in favor of Lightyears and its doggedly infectious embrace of love. The rollicking bit of Americana, with its guitar jamboree and male choral shouts on “The One You Love,” sing. As does the plaintive ballad of sweet austerity, “Still Be Loving You,” a delicate, open-handed offering. The declaration worn on Harris’s threadbare sleeve there bears a slight resemblance to Stevie’s early '70s acoustic ballads that carried a whiff of country soul and a twinge of sadness despite being love songs. On “Junkie,” the early Wonder influence can be felt again on the somewhat derivative light junkyard funk whose chords and compositional lines are not unknown to the soul ear over 40. Listing the loveable characteristics of one's beloved is almost always a winner in the pop cannon, and the sing-a-long standout that is “Things That You Are” is no exception, with its doo-wop harmonies and easy lead, the song is a spotlight winner. Sunny buoyancy personified paint the uplifting anthem of love and light on “Our Day,” featuring some fine supporting vocals by India.Arie, and the earnest refrain of “Yes, I believe in love” on the rosy “Us.”

Switching gears with a moody guitar and minor chords, “Shelter” is an indigo toned affirmation of the sanctuary Harris’s love brings to him and vice versa. It’s weary overcast suggests malevolent forces from which safe haven is needed and is sung with the most sincerest of promises. In stark contrast, the parental love letter of “I Can’t Wait to Meet You” is just barely spared cloying preciousness through nice harmony work and a hook that sticks.

Without the melodic or lyrical strength of cuts like “Things That You Are,” some songs like “Sunshine” and “So Is Mine” lack distinction and become white noise. Whereas a charming song like the organ swells and country rock ‘n’ soul of “Which Way Home” will get the foot stomping and rhythmic clapping in a welcome call and response to Harris’s fire. However, very little doesn’t work in a project that is lopsidedly good. That Lightyears is largely so complete and so irrefutably timely and timeless should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Harris’s skillful abilities and long game efforts to expand the boundaries of what is considered soul. It just took us a while to catch-up. Highly Recommended.  

By L. Michael Gipson

 
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