The words that Leo Harmonay sings in his new album Naked Rivers have a way of sweeping us off our feet and forcing us to see things from a different point of view. Whether he’s dispatching a pained wail in the beautiful “The Ballad of the Unknown River Driver,” chasing after an ethereal harmony in “Labor Day,” staying in the shadows of an exotic rhythm in “Broken Cup” or simply throwing down a stomping beat in the catchy but ominous “Lucky Guess,” Harmonay is intent on being as vulnerable as an artist can be from within the four walls of a recording studio. He cuts up a folky ballad and turns it into a stealthy pop tune in “Patterns,” drives home a burning alternative rock hook in the rollicking title track, experiments with a thematic throwback melody in “You and the Sun” and finally meets his vocal match in “Lost Summer” with singer Enlia (in what amounts to the most gorgeous duet I’ve heard this season). Leo Harmonay is reminding us what Americana should really sound like in Naked Rivers, and that’s something every critic should be commending.

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Obviously the main stars of this LP are the guitar and the vocals, but the occasional fluttering of percussion that we hear in “You and the Sun,” “Best Mistake” and the experimental “Contours” is perhaps one of Naked Rivers’ biggest unsung heroes. It’s understated, almost muted in “Contours,” but it’s just loud enough in the master mix to affect how we follow the rhythm of the track, and furthermore, the poetic unfurling that occupies center stage.

The expanded string section in “The Ballad of the Unknown River Driver” gives the song an almost bluegrassy sort of a texture that makes the main vocal harmonies sound way more rustic than they would have without the added detail, and I fear that if Harmonay were to have eliminated the distorted bassline from the title track, it wouldn’t have been even half as chilling a composition as it is in this state. I can’t imagine the time that must have been spent behind the soundboard perfecting this tracklist, but that said, one thing that listeners will not find in Naked Rivers is the dreaded twinge of pop plasticity that has become commonplace in contemporary alternative music.

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These songs are some of Leo Harmonay’s best, but I’m not convinced that they exemplify his artistic ceiling in any way, shape or form. There’s still room for improvement here, and to be totally honest, I think that there are a few areas within his sound that he’s yet to toy with. If I were in his position, I would definitely commit to making more experimental material like this in my next studio effort, because if Harmonay is able to take what he’s done in Naked Rivers just one step further away from the mainstream model that his peers are manipulating every time they record “new” content, then he could very well cultivate a style of folk music that might end up changing the underground enormously in the future.

Michael Rand

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