CD covers can sometimes convey a misleading impression of the music contained in the album itself. Canadian singer/songwriter/guitarist, Lee Palmer’s sixth album, Horns & Harps, is a case in point.
The black and white CD cover is a close-up photograph of a bookish-looking Palmer in a striped shirt, smiling behind dark glasses and finger-picking a barre chord on what looks at first instance to be an acoustic guitar. It’s a cover that suggests a solo performance of folk music. As Willie Dixon reminded us, however, you can’t judge a book by its cover and Horns & Harps is actually a collection of 10 Americana songs played by a full band, with a lot of blues, a fair amount of rock, a splash of jazz and a hint of country.
Recorded at Jukasa Media Group in Caledonia, Ontario, Horns & Harpsfeatures eight songs written by Palmer together with covers of Jessie Winchester’s “Isn’t That So” and Walker and Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me” (originally made famous by Ray Charles). The core band comprises Iain McNally on guitars, Sean O’Grady on drums and percussion, Alec Fraser Jr. on bass, Steve O’Connor on piano, Wurlitzer and organ and Chris Ayries on backing vocals. Presumably Palmer also contributed guitar, but the CD liner notes do not clarify this. The title of the album then comes from the fact that it was recorded primarily over two days, one featuring the saxophone of Turner King, the other featuring the harmonica of Roly Platt.
Palmer is an intelligent and subtle songwriter, with an ability to craft a memorable lyric and, structurally, while still being blues or blues-based, the songs smartly avoid the 12 bar cliché trap. The opening track, “Waitin’ On The Train”, for example, neatly sets out Palmer’s metaphorical stall as O’Connor’s piano drives the mid-paced bluesy stomp, which suits Palmer’s lightly weathered voice to a tee. The band provide supple support and the song also includes a tremendous harp solo from Platt and an unexpected vocal call and response at the end with superbly uplifting contributions from Ayries.
The breezy “Good Morning Joe” features some fine slide guitar and artfully ambiguous lyrics. Palmer’s reading of “You Don’t Know Me” emphasizes the jazz leanings that are easy to overlook in the original and features another fine solo from Platt. King’s sax comes to the fore in the slow shuffle of “My Baby Again” and the jazzy pop of “Life Rolls On” (which also contains a nice guitar solo). Generally speaking however this is not an album where the emphasis is on the solos. The priority is very much focused on the song.
There is a gentle, relaxed approach to the songs on Horns & Harps. The music and singing throughout is contained and controlled. This, combined with the slow or mid-paced tempo of the songs, gives the album something of a “late night” feel. This is not the album with which to kick off the party. When you’re still washing the glasses in the early hours, however, long after everyone else has left, this album is the perfect accompaniment.