Recently, Harlem appeared as one of Esquire magazine’s ten breakout bands at this year’s SXSW. While Broken Bells, Surfer Blood and Wale may have been the safest bets on the list, weighing the balance of reward versus risk, Harlem seems to be on the other side of the scale. The three-piece is an enigma: an Austin-based band named after one of New York’s most culturally significant neighborhoods; a self-written biography that borders on schizophrenic; album titles that belie the fairly straightforward rock and roll style for which the band is known. After their self-released Free Drugs garnered a good share of attention, Matador signed the band, with Hippies being the first full-length release for the label. After hearing the lo-fi funfest that is Hippies, it seems Esquire pegged this one perfectly, too.
Every one of the two- to three-minute ditties on Hippies sound like garage demos from the ’50s and ’60s, though each with a punk edge. There are a few transformative realization moments in a child’s life: when Santa loses his magical mystery, when the magical mysteries of sexuality comes into sharp focus, and when one realizes that punk, metal and alternative are just other names for rock and roll. The wonder of Harlem is that they remove the curtain of genre and bridge the gap between Buddy Holly and Nirvana. The innocence of the harmonies and simple chord progressions pairs quite sweetly with more adult themes and the brashness of the fuzzy recording.
“Friendly Ghost” is one of the tighter songs on the album, all jangled guitars over a fairly no-frills rhythm section, but with impassioned and strained vocals. “Be Your Baby” and “Three Legged Dog” are straight out of the Buddy Holly playbook, or perhaps some of the Ramones’ covers would be a better comparison. “Gay Human Bones” sounds like a demo outtake from Weezer’s blue album, while “Torture Me” could be the ‘lighter’ version of a song from Nirvana’s In Utero. “Faces” is an early favorite of mine, bursting with energy and a dynamic vocal style. It shares certain similarities with the rest of Hippies, but stands out from the crowd due to a hyperkinetic nature and several stylistic changes. The sonic palette is changed up yet again in “Prairie My Heart” with a Texas twang added to the ’50s backdrop. “Pissed,” toward the end of the album, wedges more of a late ’60s era, aggressive Stooges groove into the picture.
Some of the 16 songs on Hippies seem like repeats of songs that had appeared earlier in the album, but it doesn’t detract from the experience. Most of the fun of Harlem is merely in the purity of their no-frills sound. There is no pretense in the music of Harlem. Hippies is a celebration of 60-plus years of rock and roll, distilled into its barest essence, and I loved every fuzzy, jangly minute of it.
MP3: “Friendly Ghost”