Harlem Shakes is coming to Grog Shop tomorrow night, and our inclination was initially to bring something new to the table to discuss. Then we realized Technicolor Health hasn’t been released yet–We can simply re-post our January 12th album review. This March 24th release already has smoothly worn edges from so many plays, and we’re absolutely stoked for tomorrow’s show. Citizen Dick will be sitting down with Harlem Shakes before their soundcheck, so make sure to check on Monday for an exclusive pre-release interview and, hopefully, some excellent footage. In the meantime, enjoy our review of their upcoming release, and if you live in Cleveland, we’ll see you at Grog Shop tomorrow night….
Editor’s Note: To this point, we’ve danced around the edges of music we approve of. We’ve lobbed out some songs and we’ve endorsed a few albums. What follows is our first critical dissection of a new release. If you have to hit the can, do it now; we’ve got a few thousand words on Harlem Shakes on deck and at least seventy percent of them are well considered. Scan at your own peril. Also, when we hit something big like this, take it as a group effort. We all go into the sweat lodge with our flashlights and a typewriter for an extended period. What emerges from our collective consciousness is this.
We live in Cleveland. It is January. It is cold and we’re slated for eleven some odd inches of snow over the next twelve hours. Sunshine and light are sweet memories; our immediate existence is dominated by grey. Happily, we’ve managed to get our hands on an advance copy of Harlem Shakes’ upcoming debut LP, Technicolor Health (March 24 Release). It’s provided a welcome shot of brightness and light; while our physical reality is mildly bleak, our sonic one has been popping with color and energy.
Harlem Shakes, a Brooklyn based band, has just launched a US tour with Tokyo Police Club. The band created plenty of hype in 2007 with their five-song EP, Burning Birthdays, and the year and a half absence points to big things in 2009. Not only is this somewhat of a who’s who tour, we believe that on the heels of this release, it’ll be one of the hottest tickets of this budding new year. Hype has already begun to emerge in the blog-world for Technicolor Health, but, as of now, the only song that can be previewed is “Strictly Game,” on the band’s myspace page. Luckily for us, and now you, our reader, the album’s popping it’s head out, and we’ve got you covered on it’s first review.
Being rock n’ roll fans, we typically believe pop music works only if the band is talented and unique. Technicolor Health fits that mold. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah blew the roof off the indie scene in 2005 with their colorful mixture of pop, intensity, and creative vocals. This album can be discussed in the same vein. Lexy Beniam’s vocals move from indifferent non-chalance to emotionally-charged in a blink, and the listener is full alert to see where it goes next. The hooks are top-notch and drive the music. Again and again on this record, the band blends toe-tapping instrumentation with talented layering of acoustic guitar, synthesizer brilliance, and good-old fashioned fuzzy guitar riffs. Above all of the layering are the hooks themselves, which glue the intricate compositions together, specifically in songs like “Unhurried Hearts (Passaic Pastoral)” where the overriding synthesizer riff of Kendrick Strauch becomes overshadowed by Goldstein’s guitar (first) hooks (second) and (finally) the nearly Spanish classical strumming that leads into its chorus. Oh, yeah, there’s the pulsing background vocals and percussion, too. To put it bluntly, this album has something for every ear, and it’s impossible to dissect all of the things going on without multiple delicious listens.
There’s a lot to like on this release, and we fully endorse waiting in line to pick this up when it comes out on March 24th. Upon first listen, the primary thing that emerges is the consistently sharp lyrical content and vocal range. Beniam tosses out witty bon mots with startling frequency. Lyrics like “I don’t even get your t-shirt’s pun,” “we got time to waste some time” and “make a little money, take a lot of shit” expose Harlem Shakes as the smart kids in the class; “if we are sleeping, we’re sleeping together” may well be the best pick-up line of the new millennium. Strangely, the most striking vocals on the album might be the backing vocals. The diversity of doo-wop inspired nonsense syllables floating behind the consistently complex sonic arrangements holds the listener’s attention while providing a comforting and homey backdrop; they’re doing complicated things while holding your hand.
While the lyrics and backing vocals hit you in the face on the first listen, it’s the percussion that drives this record. We refuse to call Brent Katz a drummer, since he’s doing a lot more than riding a high hat. There might be two songs on the record that aren’t ass-shakers and that’s largely because the dude crafting the beats is a genius. Listen close and you hear standard instrumentation as well as hand-claps, wood blocks, finger-snaps, shakers, cowbells and (probably) a god-damn guerro; there’s also some inventive use of a drum machine on some tracks, “Niagara Falls” being the most obvious example.; as a lot of the album sounds organic and spontaneous, the rigid drum machine beats are a interesting change of pace. There’s also a lot of fancy world music rhythmic stuff going on; there a few straight ahead rock songs (“Radio Orlando,” Unhurried Hearts”), but the songs that reach to a more foreign percussive idiom are the ones that stick in your craw.
Because of the heavy-duty sonic layering, the album is most certainly best enjoyed with headphones. My weak laptop speakers do this record no justice. In fact, I spent the majority of time on this review with my iPod turned up to max volume, rewinding back and forth to see if I actually heard what I thought. On each subsequent listen, the ear is drawn to something different; you catch the obvious stuff on the first go-around, after that you catch subtleties like the sneaky horn section in “Sunlight” or the pervasively evasive keyboard riff in “Nothing but Change, Part II.” “Winter Water” is a prime example of this record’s chameleonic and complex nature; it’s a track that begins with clean synthesizer noise, evoking a feeling of walking through a carnival’s house of mirrors. It works itself into a reverbed guitar riff and finally, the haunting chorus. Typical stereos will still spit out a great album, but you’re going to want this one on the subway, at the grocery store, or as you scrub the floors. Get the fancy pants hipster kind of headphones.
The ambitious nature of Technicolor Health, as will be obvious in a few months once the album has been released to the masses, cannot be fully discussed without a nod to the chops Beniam, guitarist Todd Goldstein, and virtuoso keyboardist Kendrick Strauch deliver throughout. We dislike pop/rock that has lofty ambitions, but lacks the talent to give it any punch; there’s some music that works great when the band can’t play (insert your favorite DIY punk group here), but music of the ilk of Technicolor Health requires musicians who know what they’re doing. Goldstein puts hmself in the “knows what he’s doing” category with a lot of subterranean shredding. As mentioned above, there are a ton of moving parts on the record; while Goldstein and Katz are the most obvious examples of guys who know what time it is, the whole band sounds talented. This might be one of those sum of the parts deals, but the parts themselves are impressive.
While it’s easy to acknowledge the album’s pop roots, our personal bias is to be bored by clean pop. It’s cookie-cutter and devoid of anything remotely resembling its pop-ancestors. There needs to be an edge, and throughout this album, many (or most) tracks hinge on an underlayer of fuzz. Harlem Shakes like to lay down a rolling layer of fuzz behind all of the intricate instrumentation. The album’s titular track, along with “Strictly Game” the first single, are centered around a constant fuzzy hum, fading in and out of the ether, both separating this album from the pack and situating their genre somewhere in between pop, alt, acid folk, jazz, and good old fashioned rock n’ roll. It’s difficult to pin a single label on the album as a whole. They keep us guessing and we love it. We mentioned above that the lyrics point to these fellows being pretty sharp. The sound points to them being extremely cool. They have records that you don’t have. They’ll play a cover at a live show that only the expensive-jeaned hipster will pretentiously pretend to recognize. I want my boss to be a little smarter than me and I want my bands to be a little more rad than me. Mission accomplished.
How a little fledgling music blog like citizendick managed to get their hands on this record is shocking, but wholly unimportant. What’s important is that we believe something big is about to take place with Harlem Shakes Technicolor Health LP. On March 24th when the album hits the shelves, you should be wherever you buy your music, eagerly ready to treat your ears to the same aural journey we just experienced. Hooks, talent, coolness, multiple layers, brilliant percussion, smart-guy lyrics, and rhythms jumping out of the stereo. When the band strongly proclaims, “This will be a better year,” we wholeheartedly agree.
“Strictly Game” – Harlem Shakes