Sidney Harwell – Leaving For A While – Album Review
According to what I can read on his pages online, Sidney Harwell is “from Texas” and likes to “write songs, and record them whenever I can.” And according to what I can see, that’s like…ALL of the time. This dude’s got a virtual ton of music already released online, and Leaving For A While is but a mere fraction…I like what I’m hearing in this record, I hear his potential, and I’m looking forward to checking out more from him already based on what I’ve heard…this dude has something most artists just don’t.
“Three Roads” begins the record with a tangible Death Cab For Cutie type-feel to it…from the earlier side of the catalog, but that’s more than cool with me. Heck, some might even go as far to say that’s completely my jam. As far as I can tell, everything you’ll hear is done by Sidney himself, which is mightily impressive. According to the write-up at Bandcamp, these songs were intended as a demo for when he got himself some studio time – and I’d be the first guy to argue that what you’ll hear is the very definition of why you don’t need it. As we head deeper into the lineup, I’ll probably make an argument or two as to why you do…but as far as how this album begins, “Three Roads” is immensely satisfying and pulls us in right away. It’s got that inherently charming and low-key energy in the melody like we found in Doubting Paris years back…Sidney’s got a whole bunch of great artists/bands that he draws to my mind in comparison and I can assure ya, he’s keeping nothing but the best of company. “Three Roads” is the kind of humble beginning that sets the stage, and accurately gives your ears a glimpse of what’s to come as you listen to Leaving For A While…it’s a very humble and organic type of record to experience.
Definitely my kind of vibe for sure. A track like “A While Or Two” is very much like what you’d get if you could somehow mash Palo Alto and Spiritualized together…which I think is probably just a longer way of saying Sparklehorse, but you get the idea – this is absolutely that kind of artistic/indie style of sound that I’ve been attached to throughout my entire life. This track got the full video treatment, and deservedly so…no matter how many times I spun my way through this record over the past week or so, I’d continually come back to this track as one of my favorites for sure. As you continue on through the record and give it a few spins, you’ll discover that there are a lot of similarities between how Harwell approached the material on this album, but I can pretty much guarantee you’ll always feel like the real magic of melody stands out brilliantly on “A While Or Two” – this is very much the definition of a perfect moment in music if you ask me. “Baby I need some time to go away for a while or two, it’s just what I need to do” is a mesmerizing hook that you won’t be able to get enough of…the gentle sway to it all, the indie-soul vulnerability and beauty to it…it’s gorgeous, yet keeps every ounce of his street cred intact. Lest we forget, this IS the same man that brought you the records Sad Improvisations Of A Dying Whore and Blue Dick / Pink Pussy only six or so years ago. Maybe things have changed with Sidney since then & what you’ll hear on Leaving For A While is totally different…I’ll admit, I haven’t combed through his whole catalog just yet…but something tells me this dude has always done what he does, simple & plain.
To me, because “A While Or Two” has such a tangible magic to it, “Right Now” ends up having one of the toughest spots in the entire lineup to fill. While I wouldn’t go as far to say Sidney struggles to fill it, I feel like he chose wisely in not necessarily trying to fill the space after “A While Or Two” with what would be the record’s next best song. “Right Now” isn’t a throwaway by any stretch, but there’s no doubt that it doesn’t quite reach the same special status of the track right beforehand. By that same token, I’d readily tell ya that a lot of Harwell’s best songs are front-loaded onto this record, and that his first impressions are likely stronger than what you’ll find at the end of this lineup of sixteen tracks. “Right Now” might not be my favorite of the earliest parts of this set, but it does end up being a better track than a lot of what we’ll hear towards the middle and the end if I’m being completely truthful with ya.
It’s really rare for anyone out there to remind me much of Palo Alto…that was a really short-lived band, but here we are, and that’s the case…Sidney’s got a lot in common with the sound they were going for at the time, and thankfully, can carry it on now. “Poppy Court” is one of those real laidback-but-beautiful types of tunes on a melodic level. In terms of the lyricism, you’ve gotta give Harwell a ton of credit for the kind of uniqueness that should bloody well stand out to everyone listening. Chances are, he’s SO laidback that a ton of people aren’t really gonna notice his words are at a genius-level, though they’ll certainly seem scattered in thoughts to most, they’re pure gold as far as I’m concerned on “Poppy Court.” We’re talking about dissociative Beck-type of approach where everything means nothing and something at the same damn time…and I’m lovin’ it. Here’s an example: “Big League chewer with an open top shotgun, shooting up the neglect in my spine, bound to be late for dinner, but we’re takin’ our time.” Don’t get me wrong, I have no theories as to what Sidney’s really getting at on “Poppy Court,” but you can’t deny the uniqueness of his words. We all attach our own crazy meanings to moments like these, and that’s every bit as much a part of the beauty in creating them…everyone has their own interpretation, and allowing for that to occur is a large part of what keeps a song living for years after.
Dude’s been doin’ what he does since at least around 2015 from what I can tell…so believe me, he’s dialed right into the sound he’s looking for, and we’d have to assume he knows what he wants to create on a record at this point in time. Ultimately, Sidney IS the hook in many of these songs, as opposed to any kind of super-defined part in any song. Which makes the options limitless in terms of what to include, and harder to be objective as to what should be left out. I probably like “Help Me Save Her” every bit as much as he does himself…but it’s tougher to say whether or not it would connect as strongly with the masses out there listening, or if Harwell shouldn’t be a bit more brutal in chopping things down a bit when it comes time to release an album, instead of attempting the impossible with a lineup of sixteen tracks. All that being said, the guy’s likely one of those truly undiscovered and underrated gems of our independent scene…I listen to the way he sings a song like “Help Me Save Her” with that like, freewheeling haziness that someone like Thom Yorke brings to his most Pop-influenced tunes, and I can’t help but dig what I’m hearing from Sidney…it’s beautiful stuff, equally experience, and captivating.
There’s a real genuine quaintness to this dude’s music that makes it seriously irresistible – take a listen to something like “Fall In Line” and you’ll know exactly what I mean. Not effortless by any stretch, just pure and natural…the music inside of Sidney Harwell, spilling out into the universe for all of us to hear. I’m thankful for that…this dude’s exceptional as far as my ears are concerned. Would I expect everyone out there to be jump up & down excited about what he creates, like I am? Heck no! He’s so chilled-out and laidback, that it’s actually really hard for me to believe people would be EXCITED about his style of music, but that’s more than okay…those that get it, will be. Sometimes it’s the impact of discovery, you know what I mean? Given that Leaving For A While is my own first experience with Harwell’s music, I’m like, 100% all about this…like I’d put this guy up there with the best artists/bands I’ve found throughout this year for sure, and considering this was all intended to be a DEMO…you can understand the potential and why I’d be as excited as I am. Of course, if this IS how he’s been rockin’ for the past seven years or so, then that might change things…maybe…I still think the dude is making music on a whole other level, especially as far as solo artists are concerned. There’s something so spinnable and relentlessly charming about the way he’s formed this lineup of songs – so “Fall In Line” and have a listen, this dude deserves it.
At a large 5:19, “Lady Liberty” earns the crown as the album’s longest song. You have…hmm…probably experienced something like an alternative love-song in your lifetime somewhere along the lines…but…even if that’s the case, it’s doubtful that you’ve quite discovered one like this one here. I love that just about everything Sid’s got goin’ on throughout this record would sound totally beautiful to a passerby, yet if you’re lucky enough to spend some time with these songs, you’ll find a much more devious magic at work underneath its shimmering surface. Again, I cite for your example, some of this fine man’s words to back up what I’m saying: “Soon as I get out of here I’ll cum and then behave/but you can bet there’s nothing there for me/as soon as I am done you have to pee/only me inside absurdity.” If there’s one thing I love even more than melody when it comes to music, it’s contrast – and the level you’ll find in Harwell’s tunes between the words and what you hear is practically second to none out there in the indie scene right now…this dude’s got a gift when it comes right down to it. I know, I know – it’s a weird time to point that out, but it’s just as good as any other to reinforce the point I’m making – he says what he wants to, whenever he wants to, and so too, do I. I freakin’ love this guy.
While it’s probably fair to say he could have used more dynamics on this record overall from track to track in order to help each cut stand out a little bit more as it plays on, the cohesion he’s created is also worth a salute too. Like, I know I’ve put Leaving For A While on several times over this past week or so, and simply let it spin…no writing, no tippity-tap of my keyboard in the background…just a genuinely appreciative listening, uninterrupted and undisturbed. You get to songs like “Colossus” and can’t help but enjoy the way these songs don’t fight for your attention, but keep you enchanted and listening with what seems like half the effort that others put in. Sidney’s kind of got this whole like…Mimicking Birds thing goin’ on in a song like “Colossus” – and much of this record for that matter too I suppose. Anyone that knows anything about me knows that’s hallowed ground in terms of comparisons I tend to make; that’s one of my favorite bands of all-time…and while Harwell might not be as intricate or complex as a lot of what they create, the magic of the melodies in his music are very similar at the core of it all. So heck yeah, I’ve got no problem letting an album like this spin for as long as I can possibly let it. The life of a music critic is so fucked in the sense that we listen to something and then we’re onto the next so much quicker than we’d like to be in the best of cases, and not soon enough in the worst. You get to a record like Leaving For A While & it’s like I’ve become Goldilocks with the right audible bowl of porridge.
Even “Summer Day,” which is arguably a bit looser of an idea or concept…like…damn if that ain’t part of its charm. The extra details in the atmosphere surrounding the music…they’re awesome. Is it my favorite of the bunch? Nope! Probably not. Heck, I might have even cut this out of a lineup of sixteen tracks with all the added quirks you’ll find in it from timing to tone…but at the same time, there’s something extraordinary about the organic magic this track has too. This is like we’ve walked in on Harwell just doin’ what he does, on the fly without rehearsing the moment a whole bunch, and we can get a glimpse of how special that really is, even in its rawest form. It’s only 2:22 in length, so it’s a short moment in time…and yeah, I’d probably still have cut it based on what I told ya…but I feel like in these particular circumstances, where everything you’ll hear was intended to be a demo at one point, you can cut the man a little slack. Maybe he would have sharpened this up a bit, maybe he’d have left it intact, maybe a studio version would have killed the natural organic sound that draws us in…so maybe we’re better off with it as is if “Summer Day” was to be included at all, and if it sounds like I’m complaining, I ain’t. I’d listen to “Summer Day” all day, even in winter…and the proof is in the pudding because I have.
The album’s shortest tune, “You And Me” is arguably one of the more upbeat tracks on the record. Is it just me though, or has Sidney had a crying kid in the background of at least a few of these songs? That could be the demo-thing…it could be on purpose…or it could be the fact that I was reviewing a movie called Manbaby at another site I write for, and that’s the noise I’ve got stuck in my brainwaves at the moment. It is definitely one of those things…I’ll leave it to y’all to figure out which is the case. Anyhow. “You And Me” is alright…I’m probably more on the fence about the inclusion of this one than the majority of the others, but I ain’t turning it off or turning it down either…it’s still as welcome as anything else by Sidney Harwell is at the end of the day for me; I honestly just really dig the music that he makes.
That being said, I’m fairly familiar with the threshold of the masses and what they can handle…and again, I’d readily acknowledge that the set-list on Leaving For A While does need more diversity in the sound between its songs than it currently has, and likely could have been shortened up a bit to make the rest a bit tighter. Like…I hear the musical hook from the guitar in “No Fool” and I get it…I’d wanna include that too. I don’t know that it gets us by the looseness that the drums on this tune has, or if that main guitar hook is even featured enough to satisfy us all…the slight timing issues of “No Fool” make it a tougher sell than perhaps it should be, and would likely make it one of the strongest candidates to have gotten a chance at the ol’ studio recording. It’s always tough when you come up against that one irresistible part of a song that’ll make you lose your objectivity about the rest…”No Fool” is that tune for sure…I wouldn’t have wanted to let that hook from the guitar hit the cutting room floor either, yet objectively, it doesn’t quite justify the rest. I’d say between tracks ten & eleven is where you reach the points of Leaving For A While that are toughest to advocate for or stick with in a big lineup of sixteen. As I’ve said countless times, there’s like, two records with more than twelve songs on it that have come out completely perfect and flawless from start to finish…so any time you hit track thirteen, think about that.
The upscale of the melody in “Pass Me By” is probably arguably a bit wide of the mark at points too, making this track another candidate in the string of cuts that haven’t quite come out as strong as what you’ve heard at the beginning of this record. What Sidney really needs, is at least one more “A While Or Two” on this album, and I’m not entirely convinced that he’s been able to quite tap into that level of specialness again just yet. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing of course…most artists would be lucky to tap into something as extraordinary as “A While Or Two” just once in their career/lifetime – and Sidney has, so that’s not just good, it’s great – but the downside is, we want a whole lot more of that as a result. Like I always say on these pages of ours, I gotta hold ya to the standards I hear you’re capable of…and I’ve felt that way about a lot of Leaving For A While too…it’s felt a lot like Harwell is searching for that similar magic, yet never quite finds it again. In terms of being an independent artist & such, the only pressure on ya is the pressure you put on yourself…there are no suits and ties poking you in the ribs to get an album out by yesterday…so by that logic, taking more time to really mine out those tracks that have an undeniable specialness to them, ain’t really a bad idea. Otherwise you can end up with a “You And Me,” “No Fool,” and “Pass Me By” back-to-back-to-back, and it’ll just sound alright as opposed to what could potentially be much greater. Again, as I’ve mentioned several times, this album was intended to be a demo, so we have to take it all with a grain of salt with respect to knowing that each song we hear could have ended up being more rehearsed, refined, or polished etc. As it stands, Sidney’s got a lot of cohesive melodies that work both for and against him…we get to “Pass Me By” and I feel like most people are going to be looking for a bit more than they’re getting in terms of the diversity here.
A lot of those similarities comes from the way the drums and bass work…Harwell can keep a rhythm section going well enough, but the bulk of his innovation & creativity come through the guitars and vocals. Even on a track like “Only A Dream,” which I like, he holds his own well-enough, but you can still hear where his strengths are. You know that J.K. Simmons would be yelling “YOU’RE DRAGGING” if Sidney was the dude playing drums in the movie Whiplash…and there’s really not too much that can be done about that as a one-man band. The reality is, he pulls it all off better than most ever could, but it really depends on whether or not he’s going for goodness or greatness with the music he’s making. I know what it’s like to try and make music with others – which is to say, impossible to begin with, but especially if you have a desire to do it that far exceeds what other folks can keep up with. While Sid might say he records songs whenever he can, he’s still gotta recognize that’s a whole bunch more than the average person ever will…so that really puts him in a situation where he has no choice but to be the guy playing everything, and all of the time. Would his music benefit from having other players and their perspectives brought to the parts surrounding the guitar & his vocals? Quite likely, based on what I’ve heard in this record – but understand that he’d be trading his level of output and production in order to do that. A lot of the time, it’s not worth the trade to make something 10-15% better than it already is, you feel me? But that is the difference between being good and being great – and that’s up to Harwell to decide. Obviously he could have waited to put this lineup of songs out there, but he chose to go with an album full of demo material…sometimes that works out in an earthy-type of natural way, and at other points, it can reveal cracks in the fundamentals that need to be shellacked to be more convincing.
In listening to “Chelsea Park,” I feel like Sid’s gonna benefit most by really understanding what he’s got working fully in his favor and leaning into his strengths harder going forward. The guy’s a tremendously gifted lyricist, a stunning singer with an immaculate grip on melody, and an innovative guitarist that doesn’t really stretch his skills too far, but seems to find the right way to make the rhythm work every time. There’s an endearing, sweet, and humble vibe in his music, while the contrast often comes through the poetic & strange musings he makes in his words…and the more he taps into these being the main highlights, I think the better off he’ll be. Like…there’s a part of me that wonders whether or not he even really needs the bass and drums, or if adding that stuff in might actually be holding him back a little bit. Though, I’ve gotta say, I really enjoyed the breakdown he creates at the end of “Chelsea Park” and feel like that’s a great argument against the points I’m trying to make. Anyhow. I think any artist out there generally knows what their strengths/limitations are…it’s just a matter of whether or not we want to surrender to that, and not many true artists ever will. We rebel against that kind of stuff, which is also how we grow and evolve in what we do – so too, will Sidney as he carries on from here. But for real y’all – look at the brilliance of this last verse of “Chelsea Park” and acknowledge songwriting greatness when you see/hear it will ya? “Did you get my letter? Did your parents throw it away? Did they think I had the wrong address even through that wasn’t the case? Did you get my letter? Do you read it every day? I can hear you laughing at me as you read the final page, and I don’t mind cause your laugh is the most warm wonderful thing. If I could hear you laugh just one last time I would give my life away.” That is STUNNINGLY poetic, heartbreaking, gorgeous, and emotionally powerful…that’s insightful stuff, 100%.
A case in-point, listen to the difference that you hear in a song like “Let’s Go Together” as it starts, right away. No drums, no bass…just the guitar and the pure magic of Sid Harwell’s voice along with it…it’s the audible argument I’ve been making right away in terms of the allure and accessibility. Here’s where you ask yourself as an artist, what does the song call out for? Does he need the heartbeat kickdrum pulse that ends up coming into “Let’s Go Together?” Maybe…but maybe not. To me, I think I would have gone with just his voice and a guitar for this particular tune…that would have already been the versatility we’d be looking for by comparison to the rest, and quite likely would have continued to bring out his best. He’s got a couple stray notes here & there guitar-wise…but all-in-all, this is a quality tune. I am VERY interested in the story of whatever the heck has been happening in the background of these songs that the recorder has picked up along the way…I’ve never been sure whether it’s been intentional, or not. He’s got a genuinely pretty theme worked into this tune at the core of it all…”Let’s Go Together” is for the lovers and dreamers out there, and I highly suspect that despite a few natural flaws here & there, this song will still have no problem winning people over. I can attest to that because I’m a people.
“Don’t Remind Me” is considered to be a bonus track on this record…which is fine with me. More Sid is always gonna be welcome here as far as I can tell, so heck ya…another track is a good thing. As to what makes it a bonus track and not just an official part of the lineup…I couldn’t rightly tell ya…you’d have to ask him that. I suppose it’s fair to say that “Let’s Go Together” would make for a better & more conclusive ending overall…and that Sid takes a few strange liberties with how he chooses to sing this bonus track that we haven’t really heard from him so far to this point in terms of coloring way outside of the lines…but there’s still a solid idea at the heart of this song that works, and I enjoyed it. There’s a whole lot of raw beauty in this record that, given the opportunity to have been polished, sure, might have turned out better than what we hear…like my comparison to early Death Cab For Cutie, I’m sure they feel the same way about their first records too. But in doing that, we’d lose a lot of the natural and organic magic that makes them as authentic, special, and unique as these moments are…and that actually counts for a lot in the tunes I choose to spend a lot of time listening to. Anyone out there can grab a whole bag of tricks from production and effects and whatnot…and I really like the fact that Sid has put this album out there as kind of the antithesis to that. We get a glimpse of this man at his rawest, which is remarkably appealing, charming, and endearing too…anything else he could have done might have enhanced the quality of his songs, but it could have also taken away from how vulnerable, open, and honest a record like this is as well. Overall, I think it’s a tough record to assess Sidney as an artist and feel like we know the whole story – so personally, I look forward to diving deeper into his extensive back catalog of records out there online to get a better sense of what he’s all about…but as it stands, I’ve had several spins of Leaving For A While throughout this past week & thoroughly enjoyed listening.
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