Kevin Morby is like an old friend you meet on the street by chance and then spend the rest of the day catching up with as the city and day fades out behind you. His voice and music is comfortingly familiar, yet so fresh and new.
Best known for being the singer/guitarist of Brooklyn outfit The Babies and the bassist for Woods, Morby recently released his solo debut, “Harlem River,” his ode to New York City, which he called home for five years. Now a transplant to Los Angeles, his eight-song outing is an immaculate homage to his former home.
First track “Miles, Miles, Miles” is almost a journey in itself; it starts slow and picks up speed as Morby tells us about his travels. When he sings the last of three “miles” in the chorus, you can hear how road-weary he is as well as the joy he feels in having finally arrived.
“Wild Side (Oh The Places You’ll Go)” is lively, with fantastic organ while the title track is an easy standout. The song lopes along with haunting “oohs” that play nicely with the strutting guitar that sounds, at times, right out of the ’60s. The song takes its time ending amid a staccato beat of cymbals, guitar and bass, flowing like the very river the song and the album takes its name from, and you’re glad because you don’t want the song to end, you just want to keep walking alongside that river.
“If You Leave and If You Marry,” about a lost love who is standing at the altar, starts with pretty acoustic guitar and Morby’s echo-y voice achingly beseeching her to, “Please, oh please, remember me as one you’ve loved.” Oh, love, it hurts hard when it’s gone, but it sure does make for a damn good song muse.
Organ and guitar once again pair beautifully on “Slow Train,” a song that perfectly embodies a truth about life in New York, that it sometimes beats you down, that it sometimes, amid all those people riding trains and standing beside you, causes you to forget who you are. “I am lost all around/ I am buried on the ground,” Morby confesses and later shares, “I don’t know my name/ I don’t know my purpose, I just know my place on the slow train.” It’s brilliant, as are the vocals of Cate Le Bon, which pop up at the end to give the song a haunting climax.
Morby mixes surf rock harmonies and rockabilly chugging guitar on “Reign” while “Sucker in the Void (The Lone Mile),” despite being about “all future no past” and “a wolf with no pack,” not musically melancholic. Instead, it’s thoughtful, accepting and almost upbeat.
“The Dead They Don’t Come Back” is very twangy and, as Morby ponders mortality passing cemeteries and standing at a friend’s grave, it’s woeful, but it’s a woefully stunning closer to a truly fantastic album.
Kevin Morby will perform at Mercury Lounge Jan. 16 and at Boot and Saddle Jan. 17.