The singer/songwriter/front man of OC alt.-country/roots rock band Cowboy Buddha has forever been fascinated by the lonesome yet rich landscape of the Old West. His character-driven songs, with such titles as "Trains, Small Towns and Broken Hearts" and "Oklahoma Shotgun Bath," suggest a vivid imagination and pathos.
How someone with such a dusty, expansive outlook and a love of the land finds Western-laced songwriting inspiration in increasingly urban OC—where the only drunken gunslingers and dance-hall whores you'll find come as costumed characters at Knott's Berry Farm—is intriguing.
So what gives? For one thing, the 32-year-old Harrington finds fodder in John Ford flicks and William Faulkner, James Joyce and Kurt Vonnegut novels. He seems to have learned well from these sources, spinning his own yarns with grace and a poetic rhythm into tender love songs, robust anthems and other dark tales of longing, loneliness and regret.
Harrington also draws from an array of life experiences. With a father in the military, he moved around a lot while growing up, spending time in such locales as Mississippi, Colorado, Florida, Arizona, Maine and the U.K. In 1994, he settled in the Costa Mesa/Tustin area.
To make music that's honest and natural—that isn't perfect, but has personality—is why Harrington formed Cowboy Buddha six years ago with songwriter/guitarist Steve Frutos (who has since left and is now a San Jose social worker). The band operates as a low-key venture, playing only a few times per month at local venues. Now, though, following several albums and EPs (including last year's terrific Cement Pond), Harrington has just self-released an ambitious solo debut, Eyes On Fire & Knuckles Sore(available through www.lopie.com). He hasn't abandoned his trademark Wilco-meets-the-Flying Burrito Brothers sound: the rootsy "As If You Had a Choice" and "Some Small Corner" would fit nicely on any Robbie Fulks or Richard Buckner recording.
But Harrington—who works part-time as a chef's assistant—draws from other influences as well. He's as fond of the Beatles and Burt Bacharach as he is Lou Reed, the Minutemen and Hüsker Dü. He uses his solo outings to explore new musical terrain, including the use of keyboards and the backing vocals of Patti Pannell, lead singer of local rock band Eating Venus. The disc-closing "Coming Apart at the Seams" is an ambitious 11-minute epic that experiments with some Moby-like, ambient textures that Harrington has recently been drawn to. Even though the song never really clicks, the point is that he is willing to risk failure—and how many of today's musicians can you say that about?
Whether Harrington's style—call it Americana, roots, alt.-country, whatever—will reach beyond a cult audience is open to debate. A year or two ago, it looked doubtful. But now, with the phenomenal success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou?soundtrack, the earthy-sounding yet cinematic Eyes On Firecould emerge as the genre's next legitimate indie sleeper. If not, at least Harrington can take solace with producing one of the best local releases of the year.
Fletcher Harrington, Crosstown 7 and Eating Venus perform at the Din Din at Bamboo Terrace, 1773 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa, (949) 645-5550. Sat., 8 p.m. Call for cover. All ages.
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