May 22, 2010

Album Review - Harlem


LP TITLE: Hippies

LABEL: Matador Records


RATING: 7/10

“The only band we like is Nirvana. The only album we like is Nevermind. The only song we like is “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” No, this is not an obituary for a delusional albeit loyal Nirvana fan that took his own life after realising that Kurt Cobain was never coming back. And this isn’t even the press release for a Nirvana tribute band that stubbornly refuse to learn, or write any other song, in fear of selling out and dishonouring the aforesaid grunge legends.

These are in fact the words of Harlem, a 3-piece Austin based outfit that take the term garage rock as literally as possible.

And so you might make a pre-conceived judgement about the group’s 2nd record, Hippies: of being nothing more than a novelty act by overtly eager Nirvana wannabees.

Oh how wrong you would be.

Harlem is the passion project of Michael Coomer and Curtis O'Mara – Tucson natives who migrated to the live music capital of the world: Austin, Texas. The two comrades have been playing together since adolescence and therefore have developed a unique synergy that sets them apart from the bevy of tuneless and asynchronous noise-rock purveyors. Though occasionally out of tune yet by no means out of sync, Coomer and O'Mara equally divide songwriting credits and instrumentation on Hippies, and the fine line of this balancing act makes for a far more intricate and engaging listen.

Hippies is indisputably a record based in the past. It acts as the cliff notes for entire musical eras – Blues, rockabilly, surf-pop, punk, grunge and garage rock are all revisited (ironically the one genre we would have expected from an album with this title is missing), remastered and covered in a thick layer of gauze before being spat out for public consumption. And as is true of any genuine exercise in revivalism, from the point of view of the artist, it is ultimately all about the escape. An escape to a time of innovation and passion: be it the anarchic chaos of the Sex Pistols, or the sundrenched harmonies of The Beach Boys. Thus, the more accurate, familiar and faithful the music on the record is to its past equivalent, the closer said revivalist can get to the romanticised times. In other words, rather than labelling Hippies as an unoriginal copy, one should see it as an attempt to recapture the authenticity and spirit of great moments in musical history: moments that the lads from Austin were denied by the inconvenience of being born too late.

Over the course of Hippies, and through the range of bygone styles and genres, we realise that we are witnessing the evolution of rock music take place on this lo-fi sleeper of a record. From Chicago blues (“Stripper Sunset”), to 60s surf-pop (“Number One”), to Buddy Holly-esque power ballads (“Be Your Baby”), to thrashy punk (“Friendly Ghost”), to a sugar-coated rendition of grunge masterpiece “Lithium” (“Gay Human Bones”) - Harlem has merged the shambolic history of rock into a concise album format. And yet there is something distinctly less threatening about the rock-influenced songs on this record. It is almost as if the original intensity and motive has been extracted, in favour of something fun and easy to dance to. One could say that Harlem is punk, without the aggression; or grunge, without the depression. It is up to the listener to decide whether this is a positive or negative thing.

Yet all these genres have one thing in common when channelled through the Harlem machine – they come out stripped-down and raw. Raw is a word that seems to arise a disproportionate amount of times when discussing Hippies. The record completely lacks any studio sheen whatsoever, and sounds so unadulterated that one gets the impression of a home or garage recording. But Hippies is Harlem’s inaugural release on the feted Matador Records – which has produced equally scuzz/fuzz records by acts such as Fucked Up, Kurt Vile, Jay Reatard (R.I.P.), Girls and Sonic Youth. Contrary to Harlem’s first album that was distributed on a minute scale by a now disbanded recording company, Hippies was recorded in the studio in a perhaps more conventional way then Harlem were accustomed to. Yet lest you read this as a pre-emptive excuse for producing a second-rate product - understand that Harlem’s sound has changed very little, and the group’s knack for penning driven and jagged lo-fi accomplishments is still very much present. If anything has changed, it would be that their sound is more refined, honed and simply more mature than their first release; and that kind of change should be embraced and not shunned.

Energy is another word that describes the overall feeling and aesthetic of Hippies. The record teems with frenetic energy, the truculence of youth and a brash lack of subtlety. The end result is a raucous, wild and exhausting listening experience. It succeeds both as a product of modern-day low attention spans, and as their hopeful panacea – by throwing everything they’ve got into each song and creating an exceptionally contagious collection of tracks, that on a whole clock in at around 40 minutes. By increasing the number of songs on the album to 16, and decreasing track length, to a mean average of two and a half minutes, Harlem has successfully, and probably inadvertently, created the perfect album for this generation of listeners; short songs that pack a punch, and enough of a varied theme to keep one interested - so hats off to the boys for that.

Yes we can read between the lines and overanalyse to the point of dehumanization. But at the end of the day, Hippies is a no-frills garage-rock record that is fun and energetic, and the utter lack of pretence is a breath of fresh air in this era of overproduced corporate drivel. It is true that their sound may not be completely original, and that the album may not flow seamlessly, but this doesn’t detract from the listening experience. And at its core, Hippies is a celebration of 50-plus years of rock music, distilled to its natural essence – so appreciate it for that if nothing else.

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