My favorite album of all time this week – Harbor Lights

Note: Jeremy Dylan hosts a popular podcast where he sits down with a music artist, asks them to name their “favorite album ever,”  and  then conducts the interview with a consideration of that favorite album as the main thread. Dylan’s podcast is the inspiration for this and all subsequent posts in this series.

I have listened to most of the interviews in Dylan’s podcast series. The two-part interview with Neil Finn of Crowded House was epic. I enjoyed the Alyssa Bonagura interview as she opined on John Mayer’s Room for Squares. Matt Fell’s consideration of the criminally underrated Temple of Low Men by Crowded House was outstanding.

As I listened to the podcasts one question nagged me. “How does one ever narrow it down to only one album?” I could no more choose a ‘favorite album” than I could choose a favorite of my six children.” Besides, I am frustratingly flighty in my musical whims. One week’s musical obsession is suddenly (and for no apparent reason) abandoned the next week in favor of something entirely different. I have no explanation for this except that this is how my music listening habits work.

I’m certain I could not pick a definitive “favorite album of all time” and let that stand for the rest of my days. However, I can pick a favorite of all time one week at a time.

Which brings me to my favorite album of all time this week, which is the 1993 album Harbor Lights by pianist Bruce Hornsby.

Like most folks in 1986 I was bowled over by Hornsby’s debut album (The Way It Is) which was recorded with his band The Range. The pop music landscape at the time was dominated by either Eurosynth pop or heavy metal. Into that musical milieu strode Hornsby with songs full of acoustic piano improvisations and observational lyrics shot through with dry wit. The plaintive piano intros to “Every Little Kiss” and the title track were the musical equivalent of throwing open the windows and letting in fresh air after a long winter indoors.

As much as I enjoy the band’s sound overall, I have never been a fan of the rhythm tracks on the albums Hornsby recorded with The Range. The bass and drums always feel so stiff and uninteresting. It is clear that Hornsby (or maybe the producer) is quite fond of the drum machine technology of the time as it is used to death. Songs like “On the Western Skyline” or “Stander on the Mountain” suggest there is a drummer and bass in there struggling to get out. Otherwise, most of the rhythm tracks on the first three Hornsby and The Range albums are little more than static grooves used to set up the piano and the vocal.

When one considers Harbor Lights (released in 1993) it is clear that Hornsby has turned a creative corner. The first hint that something is afoot is the fact that the album is credited to Hornsby alone. There is no mention of “The Range” on the album’s cover. Popping the disc in and pressing play on the first track reveals little new. The solo piano intro to the title track is gorgeous, spacious, and vintage Hornsby, but it is similar in mood to the intro to “Every Little Kiss.” At :56 seconds into the track, a short burst of unison piano and bass activity leads into the first groove of the album. And this time, there are no drum machines in sight. It is a real, honest-to-goodness drum groove full of feeling and intensity. Playing that drum groove is the original drummer for The Range, John Molo. But it is as if he has been let off a short leash and been allowed to run free. He locks in effortlessly with Yellowjackets’ bassist Jimmy Haslip and the music soars in ways that the Range never achieved.

Harbor Lights is not entirely free of drum machines. Nevertheless, the use of that technology is more subtle and marries well with Molo’s drumming. For example, the aforementioned title track leads off with explosive live drumming and then settles down into a simmering groove. During the pre-chorus (“Take you down where the air is thick…”) Molo’s live drumming is replaced with what sounds like a drum machine. This time the drum machine usage is not jarring, does not detract from the mood of the song, and gives way beautifully to Molo’s live drumming as the chorus enters. This “push and pull” between the live drumming and the drum machines occurs in many of the songs on Harbor Lights and Hornsby (who produced the album himself) uses it to great effect.

In the liner notes to the album Hornsby states that Harbor Lights is basically “…a piano trio record, or piano, bass, and drums augmented by the various guests who add their great personalities and extra color to the sound.” The list of “various guests” that Hornsby managed to obtain for Harbor Lights reads like a who’s who of the music business: Pat Metheny, Jeff Lorber, Phil Collins, Branford Marsalis, Bonnie Raitt, and the late Jerry Garcia.

It would be difficult for me to single out a favorite track off of this album. Harbor Lights has profound nostalgic ties to my early 90s college years. It provided a most excellent soundtrack for many road trips when gas was cheap and my friends and I had all of the time in the world. The title track never ceases to move me deeply. Hornsby’s piano intro is as beautiful as anything he has ever recorded; full of the soulful, Midwestern chord voicings that so characterize his music. Given Metheny’s deep Midwestern roots, it is completely natural that he and Hornsby would find an easy musical simpatico. Metheny’s two guitar solos on the title track are two of the finest he has ever recorded, with the solo on the outro of the song being an especially powerful moment. When Hornsby takes a chromatic left-turn with the chord changes near the end the title track, Metheny follows along effortlessly and manages to hit all of the sweet notes of all of the chords.

Qualifying as a co-favorite track is “China Doll.” If any song exemplifies the greatness of the Molo/Haslip rhythm section on this album, it is this one. Molo’s drum groove feels so relaxed with lots beautiful cymbal work happening throughout the song. Haslip is at Molo’s hip from the beginning and the two create a wonderful pocket for an expansive Metheny solo and a killer groove during the hair-raising bass/piano unison passage near the song’s end. Molo blows the cover off of the song’s outro as he interacts with Hornsby’s piano solo and throws in more great cymbal work.

The penultimate track on Harbor Lights (“What a Time”) features the following lyric, “Oh, what a time/It was time to be amazing.” Starting with this album and continuing on to his next one (Hot House) Hornsby’s sound elevated from a fresh-sounding novelty to something really amazing, an amazingness I’m not sure he has ever achieved again. Oh, but what a time it was for music such as this.

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“My favorite album of all time this week” is an ongoing series of posts where I consider “my favorite album of all time;” a designation that changes weekly; sometimes daily.

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