If you’re into lo-fi garage rock, well then you are just sitting pretty these days. There’s plenty of it out there, and it’s getting all kinds of attention. But while the attention will eventually fade, shifting to another fleeting interest in some other sound, you’ve got to admit that a lot of bands—Black Lips, Happy Birthday, Golden Triangle, Girls, and plenty others—have made the most of their time in the sun, releasing solid records that, at their best, sound earnest and succeed on their own terms, even if they happen to fall in line with a trend.
Add to that list the Austin, Texas outfit Harlem. Hippies, their second record and first for Matador, is a vibrant burst of hazy guitars and pleading shouts. Michael Coomer and Curtis O’Mara deftly share frontman duties, as the two shift—live and on record—between the drum kit and the guitar seamlessly. While they bounce back and forth, newly added bassist Jose Boyer gives these songs a heft that keeps them from floating away into the arena of bratty whining.
What makes Harlem’s sound work, and keeps it just distinctive enough, is the band’s attention to melody. While everything here is coated in a cheap gauze, giving the album an effective haze, neither Coomer nor O’Mara rely on shouting for cheap, brash emotion. Sure, there’s an edge to their singing at times. But on standout tracks like “Someday Soon” and “Gay Human Bones” there’s more of a croon than a bleat to their voices. It works over the warm, overcast hum of the guitars here, which also strays away from thick distortion, settling instead for a nice middle ground between a loose jangle and a tight shimmer.
The danger these guys run, along with many of their peers, is making the same sound over and over again. But Harlem try their best to keep some variety in here, and particularly late in the record there are some nice shifts in sound. “Stripper Sunset” has a bluesy deep-end and thick crunch that the other sunburned songs on Hippies don’t even approach. The guitars on “Pissed” clear out just a bit of the haze, and let the off-kilter drumming push the song along. “Prairie My Heart” might be the biggest risk here, slowing their sound down into a psychedelic storm cloud, but it works nicely, breaking up the bursting rock with something with a deeper rumble.
Still, Hippies does contain 16 tracks, and it’s hard not to hear some repetition in the middle of the record. After eight or nine songs of ringing chords, you might find yourself searching for a clearer hook. And the simple approach the album takes lyrically can be either charming (in the Casper similes of “Friendly Ghost”) or a bit too stock to work (like the simple pleading of “Be Your Baby”). But in the end, you can chock the long track list up to zeal, because Harlem gives that off in spades on this album. They don’t sound hidden and bored behind all the haze, but instead work their way through it, and in the end offer up a solid record with Hippies. No doubt they’re on their way to more attention, now that they’re backed by Matador, but it’s those moments where they branch out here—and let those great melodies do the work—that show their true potential, which might be what keeps them shining even after the fleeting spotlight on their genre fades.
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// Notes from the Road
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