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Harlan T. Bobo - I'm Your Man

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Artist: Harlan T. Bobo

Album: I'm Your Man

Label: Goner

Review date: Oct. 22, 2007

Harlan T. Bobo bubbled up in Memphis a few years ago, when his homemade CD, Too Much Love caught on locally, leading a shop that stocked it to professionally release it on their associated label, Goner Records. Home to the city's ample and trashy garage scene, Goner rarely touched stuff this low-key, a break-up album of stark Stax-like combo work and lonely country. Bobo was into his 30s, and not a native, even if his sounds plumbed local history – he’d tagged along to Tennessee with his wife and started playing bass around town. When his marriage dissipated, he decided to sing.

Boy, can he sing. He's got a scratchy but liquid voice, dark and untrained like early Leonard Cohen, but further along in its polish. His songwriting has that same strange mid-life momentum that opened Cohen's songwriting career. He's freed of hip affectations. He's easily melodic, and just as easily harrowing. I'm Your Man doesn't have the cohesive mood of the debut, but the sound is better, the writing tighter, and he's grown even more charismatic. There's a theme of sorts, something far more rare than the break-up song cycle: a voice of experience assessing new passion. Pleading to a tentative lover, he sings, "So your girlfriends get more sex than you" and makes it entirely sensual. There's some serious emotional gymnastics performed here.

The ballads are warm, and the rock has a friendly shamble. But harsh sounds and emotions keep interjecting. In a lot of ways, it resembles the work that British Invasion veterans made in the late ’70s, after the hype was over, but before their well of invention ran dry. "God's Lamb" has the everyone-playing-lead-at-once tumble of the Who, and "Last Step" has the barrelhouse strut of the Faces. But as those bands moved toward middle age, their tracks were haunted by a suspicion that they couldn't keep it together much longer. This disk is flush with optimism. He performs little musical stunts like slipping kinky images over a Lawrence Welk organ, or finding a waltz in the beat of a clock pendulum.

The climax of I'm Your Man is a return to the starkness of Too Much Love, like one last dance with the bitterness. But "One of These Days" is a lush production, instead of a homemade thing. This time, there are strings to accompany his outpouring of spite. The big sound reflects both his growth and his lingering heartbreak. Vengeance seeps out of the arrangement – now that success is in his grasp, she'll finally be sorry she wasn't around to share it. But it wouldn't have happened without the loss.

It's strange to hear this lilt of self-discovery matched with such weary experience. Like recent Nick Cave, there's a darkness to Bobo's music that is stripped of self-indulgence, a gratefulness to be making music at all. He's not gonna blow it this time.

By Ben Donnelly

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