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Clay Harper – Dirt Yard Street

“When you search the darkness, you find sorrow and regret,” cautions Clay Harper at one juncture in “Somewhere There’s a Fire Waiting,” the concluding cut on his new album Dirt Yard Street. “You find that life can break your heart,” he continues, “and memories you wish you could forget.”

Those sentiments encapsulate the bulk of Harper’s album, which comes in the wake of the heartbreaking death of his wife from cancer in 2016, not to mention the passing of his mother not far prior to that. So if you’re expecting the wisecrackery of Clay’s Coolies years or the more subtle silliness of his ‘90s singles series, kindly mosey elsewhere. Recorded intimately and informally, with sparse accompaniment from select musical friends, it’s an album that feels like it was needed rather than planned. “The record is about life in Atlanta, Paris, and New York – places I’ve lived but struggled to call home,” Harper has said, describing Dirt Yard Street, but much of it strikes the psyche as the inner reflections of a man who’s experienced more sorrow and regret than he’ll ever let on, and felt compelled to get it out somehow.

Tom Gray plucks dobro and dulcimer on the opening title track, while the aforementioned “Fire Waiting” closes the session with sad banjo (Rick Taylor) and violin (Ana Balka), but the bulk of Dirt Yard Street is performed with the comforting accompaniment of a piano, gently caressed by Chris Case. With Eric Fontaine’s saxophone weeping in the shadows, “A Poem on a Pillow” conveys the desolation of a soft soul confessional, while “Maybe I’ll Be There,” with Jordan Dayan’s bass plunking out a desolate heartbeat, could be the post-last-call nightcap at a cocktail lounge that time forgot, the only audience being the barkeep wiping down the empty tables. The smokey jazz is less convincing coupled with the hepcat-style poetry of “A Car I Remember (Dirty Hands),” but that’s really the only misstep. With Case’s chilling piano, Dayan’s stand-up bass and Marshall Ruffin’s harmony vocals, “Life on a Windowsill” is absolutely stunning, as is the even starker “All the Mail Comes to Neighbor,” a series of brief, simple scenes expressing loss, loneliness and carrying on.

Dirt Yard Street stands apart from anything Clay Harper has ever done, and the complete opposite of what many might expect from him. It’s damn near a masterpiece, if you wanna know the truth. Where the hell did this come from? A place nobody wants to go, but few are spared, that’s where.

Clay Harper
Dirt Yard Street