US: 24 Mar 2009
UK: Available as import
Harlem Shakes’ 2007 Burning Birthdays EP was a brief but brilliant sampling of sunny, sure-footed pop that promised plenty of possibilities for this Brooklyn-based band. Now, a year and a half later, all that potential pays off on the group’s first full-length, Technicolor Health.
“Nothing But Change Part II” opens the album in a fevered frenzy of pop parts held together by Lexy Benaim’s slyly clever lyrics and an obvious abundance of exuberance all around. Hand claps and high harmonies carry along on joyful rhythms and frenetic beats. Encapsulated in this one song is everything you need to know about this band and this album, and it’s all here to encourage, or perhaps compel, further listening. Every element exists to ensure each time you hear it you’ll want to hear it again. Harlem Shakes releases musical endorphins here, and the enthusiasm is irresistible. “One down and nine to go,” crows Benaim near the end, reminding us this is still only the first track!
“Strictly Game” incorporates a Latin rhythm and a cautiously hopeful outlook as the hook declares, “This will be a better year”. This is the sort of song that becomes the soundtrack of a summer—if not an entire year—like “Float On” or “Wake Up”. The irrepressible optimism, combined with the addictive accessibility of the arrangement, virtually guarantees this will be impossible to get out of your head. But that’s okay, because you won’t want to as certain syncopated lyrics lift you with its simplicity:
“Make a little money
Take a lot of shit
Feel real bad
Then get over it
This will be a better year.”
Technicolor Health, recorded with Chris Zane (The Walkmen, White Rabbits), boasts some impressive guest collaborators: Stuart Bogie (a contributor to TV on the Radio and Antibalas, among others), Jon Natchez (of Beirut) and Kelly Pratt (also of Beirut and a touring member of the Arcade Fire). The band cites Randy Newman and Carlos Santana as influences on Technicolor Health, and both can be heard, respectively, in the witty word play and world rhythms. Despite the obvious song-crafting skills the Shakes share with those two, the dynamic delivery actually sells these songs.
Like so many of the tracks on this album, “TFO” is an exercise in escalating tension and euphoric release. It comes on, climbs up and builds until it bursts into thunderous percussion, torrents of bright, colorful keys and surges of sharp, slashing guitars. “We got time to waste some time / We got time to waste some time, now” sounds almost profound when surrounded by this sort of musical complexity.
“Niagara Falls” has the forceful, forward-rushing quality its name evokes, complete with a rippling cascade of a piano melody. A swelling swoop of guitar echoes in the vocal phrasing, which likewise brings to mind the picturesque place name. There’s something so seductive about a song where every element, even the title, is engineered to add to the overall effect. “Sunlight”, another sprightly pop gem, makes the most of the connotations inherent in its title, and it does so with warm, radiant tones and a sparkling Leslie speaker-like effect on the keyboards.
“Natural Man” is all shimmering harmonies and shout-along chorus, but then, that also might be said of most of the songs here. There’s not a bad one in the bunch, but along with “Strictly Game,” “Natural Man” is a natural favorite. “Radio Orlando” stands out, too, courtesy of its chiming choral of guitars that twine and turn upon each other. Technicolor Health closes with the title track, and though it’s more of a slow burner, it still fires on all fronts. A heartbeat rhythm and shining sustain-soaked guitars swell with such a feel-good vibe, the listener gets carried out on a wave of glowing goodwill that has been growing across all ten tracks. Technicolor Health is as bright and vital as the title implies. With Harlem Shakes on the case, the prognosis for the future of pop looks positively rosy.