A petulant strumming of an acoustic guitar welcomes us into the ominous opening bars of “Lucky Guess,” but the angst of this string arrangement will soon find the perfect counterbalance in a warm, reflective lead vocal from Leo Harmonay. Harmonay’s new album, Naked Rivers, is riddled with songs like this one; from the complexities of the churning “Patterns” to the subtle surrealism of “Broken Cup,” Naked Rivers is an LP that demands a big reaction out of its audience, regardless of how familiar they are with its creator’s sterling body of work. This is definitely a highpoint in this singer/songwriter’s storied career, and I would recommend any serious audiophile give it a spin before the summer sun disappears between a wall of clouds.
There’s so much passion in Harmonay’s vocal performance in the rocking title track, relaxed ballad “Best Mistake,” and his beautiful duet with Enlia, “Lost Summer,” but the guitars that accompany it are definitely just as expressive in tone. The anthemic “Labor Day” and Dylan-style dirge “You and the Sun” don’t even need the lyricism that they’ve been adorned with to make a point; frankly, I think that the strings are giving up so much emotion that there are actually a couple of instances in these two particular tracks where Harmonay’s crooning comes across as a little bit excessive and unnecessarily bombastic. His songwriting has become so robust and full-bodied in the last few years, and there’s no getting around the fact that these are some of his most monolithic compositions ever to see widespread release.
I detect a moderate country influence in “The Ballad of the Unknown River Driver,” the haunting “Contours” and even in the vocal execution that we hear in “Patterns,” and I think that it adds to the diversely-appointed feel of this tracklist substantially. Stylistically, I don’t know that Leo Harmonay has recorded anything quite as wide-ranging in aesthetics as Naked Rivers is, and although it’s got a very ambitious framework, he never sounds like he’s bitten off more than he can chew in this album. He’s playing from the heart in “Best Mistake” and “Labor Day,” and reminding us all of why he’s got the impressive reputation that he does these days.
If you’re interested in getting to know Leo Harmonay better (or even for the first time), this is definitely the LP to get your hands on this summer. Naked Rivers encapsulates everything that this folk-rock singer/songwriter is capable of bringing with him to the table, and though it isn’t a total departure from the sound that he introduced us to in records like the moving Somewhere Over the Hudson (2015), it’s nevertheless a creative step forward for his artistry, and moreover, for the scene that spawned him. This is an interesting time for roots music in America, with the ongoing alternative country and Americana revival movements playing a big part in the development of “new folk,” but as long as performers like this one continue to develop and hone their independent craft, longtime fans of the genre needn’t worry too much about the future.