Frank Zappa, whose Mothers of Invention mercilessly blasted the philosophical lightweights so prominent in late 1960s hippie culture, called Harumi a “flower-power album” and expressed that he had no desire to listen to it. Looking back at this record four decades after it was recorded and hearing how generic it sounds, one’s encouraged to adopt Zappa’s stance. This CD reissue—which, with its minimal packaging and murky sound quality, feels more like a medium-grade bootleg—should please a few psych-rock obsessives, but it offers few rewards for the rest of us.
This album’s only redeeming quality is its ambition. When Tom Wilson, noted producer of Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground, and Simon and Garfunkel, pitched Harumi to Verve in 1967, he envisioned the album as an artistic, not a commercial, venture. His idea was to take the tunes of Harumi, a mysterious Japanese songwriter, and douse them in Gary Usher-like orchestration, David Axelrod-inspired grooves, and phaser-heavy psychedelic flourishes. Wilson and Harumi’s project ended up stretching out over two LPs, and its songs ranged from hopelessly frazzled to indulgently saccharine. Given the major label money involved and the degree of artistic freedom granted, this record could have blown minds and paradigms. Instead, it went quickly out of print and faded into obscurity, failing to gather even a significant cult following.
So why did Harumi fizzle? Chalk its failure up to a producer with too many ideas and a pop star with too little personality. The psych-soul grooves and sunshine-pop arrangements that Wilson dreamed up are just dandy, but Harumi couldn’t make them his own. In most tracks, he sounds bored and removed, his lyrics overgrown with clichés, his voice not nearly as acrobatic as the bouncy horns and wiry guitars around him. And as the album progresses, Wilson’s contributions seem to reek of desperation—you can almost hear him wondering how he’s going to inject some pizazz into each new track. So we encounter some nice surprises: the vibraphone-heavy slant-eyed soul of “Hurry Up Now”, the side-long primitivist folk spoken-word piece “Twice Told Tales of the Pomegranate Forest”, the organ- and string-fueled lysergic jam “Samurai Memories”. But Harumi ain’t no Dusty Springfield, he can’t hold a candle to Ken Nordine, and he sure as hell can’t hang with Malcolm Mooney. Nor can he approximate the wildness or creativity of any of those folks. He’s simply playing dress-up, and he doesn’t even want to be playing dress-up. He’d rather be shooting hoops or drinking a soda. And we can hear this in his unconvincing performances.
Is Harumi good for anything? Sure. Its surreal album art and Orientalist sleeve notes speak volumes about the fantasies Americans entertain about the Far East. Its tightly wound, syncopated beats could prove useful to anyone in search of a new drum loop. It provides insight into just how zany Tom Wilson’s creative mind was. But these qualities will appeal to the narrowest of audiences, and those already immersed in Orientalist cultural texts, sample-ready beats, and Tom Wilson projects will feel an overwhelming sense of “been there, done that” after a few songs.