Raven Hotel
Berkalin Records

Matt Harlan is a regular at the historic Anderson Fair venue in his native Houston, where quite often established acts spend time trying to figure out his guitar backstroke playing style. His voice is weathered but youthful, wizened yet playful, and he could narrate at a Morgan Freeman level. But songwriting is his greatest gift, dating back to his first album’s “You’re Just Drunk,” a ballad comparing late-night barfly love interests to “sleeping semi trailers and oil refinery lights.” On his third album, Raven Hotel, his lyrics again set sail on a sea of metaphors as he records the travelogue of a relationship. Fittingly, he’s joined on the record by his wife and fellow singer, Rachel Jones, who is featured on “Riding With the Wind” and also provides harmony vocals on “Slow Moving Train.” But on “We Never Met,” Harlan apologizes for his failures as a mate: “If you don’t offer no forgiveness/It’s a game nobody wins.” In the title track, he sings about running into an estranged friend, noting how “the second hand was twitching when I asked about his family” and “the guitar’s on the bed like some preacher at confession.” “Old Allen Road,” another standout, documents a lifetime affected by a tragic night — or an attempt at being unaffected by it. “Burgundy and Blue,” is a bit of a strange bird in the flock, what with its jazzy piano and saxophone, but the lyrics suggest a reflection on the previously noted interactions in the promise of a couple’s upcoming nuptials. Whether taken as a whole or digested song by song or even line by line, Raven Hotel offers further proof that Harlan may well be one of the most under-appreciated young songwriters in Texas. Hopefully that changes soon. — CODY OXLEY