In the overcrowded landscape of modern folk music, acoustic guitar-toting singer/songwriters are a dime a dozen. Every now and then, there emerge troubadours the likes of Hozier, Ben Howard, or the Tallest Man On Earth who captivate audiences worldwide by tweaking and toying with the traditional folk formula just enough to stand out from the masses.Figures like Dylan and Guthrie, after all, have proven there is nothing quite like the intimate conversation between a storyteller and a lone guitar.

Berklee songwriting graduate Joe Holt, grew up in Worcester (no, not Woostah) England. After releasing an EP and some demo collections, he crowdfunded his debut full length Brighter Moons with resounding success. He raised over $12,000, including two $1,000 backers who received 90 minute concerts in the comfort of their own living rooms. One perk embodied Holt’s genuine sincerity and traditional sensibilities: handwritten thank-you letters “just like my dad always does.”

Brighter Moons reads like an actual short story, but it also lets the listener into the mind of a young man trying to find his folk footholds. From a basic backing band with delicately brushed snare drum to vibrant violin and cello accompaniments, it’s fascinating to hear Holt try a variety of styles from his musical wardrobe. It might seem overly ambitious, but luckily he sounds unwaveringly confident and comfortable no matter the arrangement.

The opening track, “Harness Kiss” is a playful yet heartbreaking tune with a sing-a-long chorus fit for an evening at the local pub. It’s clear from the get go that Holt put a great deal into crafting these songs, with evocative wordplay (“lips dipped in tarmac”) and vivid imagery like comparing himself to a screw buried in a wall.

While there are drums on most of the tracks, the rhythmic strums of the acoustic guitar actually play a bigger role. In “Sleeping Soundly,” Holt demonstrates his impressive use of gentle finger picking and plucking, whereas the declarative “No More” features heavy scratches to simulate a snapping snare. His rhythm-focused playing effectively injects some needed texture changes and dynamic swells.

“I’m Leaving You” is a sobering tale of loss and loneliness, as the lyrics touch on several tragic scenes from divorce to suicide. Holt’s velvety voice has just the right amount of grit; his cascading, bluesy vibratos are at their best on this track. The tune comes to a climax with an unexpected electric guitar solo. It’s the only time the distortion pedal gets cranked up on the record, but its brief appearance is quite effective in highlighting the building sorrow.

Brighter Moons keeps the listener hooked by furthering an underlying story, rather than wallowing in pity and victimhood like some modern folk-pop artists. The album contains a satisfying, although simplistic, story arc of redemption and rebuilding. The defiant song “No More” is the turning point where Holt ditches the backing band for a bit to declare his resilience. This track proves that he can hold his own with just a guitar and a microphone, as he belts out powerful lyrics like “peeling my pelt off until I’m raw.” The flitting, sunny solo at the end provides promise towards an unknown future.

In general though, Holt sounds his best with the backing upright bass and drums. The rhythm section really hits its stride with the melancholy “Man In My Mind”, a song composed with an odd meter counted in five (if you’re confused think Brubeck’s “Take Five”). The clicking sidestick of the drums moves the five beat groove along nicely and naturally. Most folk artists don’t even consider experimenting with less common time signatures, so this was certainly a risk worth taking.

Brighter Moons comes to a happy, thoughtful conclusion, with the author finding “a life redesigned” in the clever lyrical structure of “Again.” The final track, “Carry Me Along,” is an almost whopping seven minutes long, but it’s another risk that pays off for Holt. The first section contains a mid-tempo theme (“aging slowly, road below me, carry me along”) and then kicks into a catchy upbeat blues-rock theme of reckless abandon (“skinny dipping”, and “freshly stolen pizza parlor beer”). The celebration eventually settles, with Holt alone with his guitar, singing a tender callback to the early “again slowly” chorus.

Joe Holt’s debut full length may not be breaking into too much new territory musically, but it is without a doubt a finely crafted and composed labor of love that tells a relatable and uplifting story of pushing for a better future and towards brighter moons.

Album Review: Joe Holt - Brighter Moons
Folk Tales
Pros
  • A coherent, relatable story arc keeps the listener's attention
  • Clever wordplay and striking imagery all across the lyrical content
  • A few unexpected experiments that mostly paid off
Cons
  • Not treading on too much new ground musically
  • A couple sleeper songs that were a bit forgettable
  • Overall narrative may be a bit too straight forward
8Folk Tales

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