Sunday, January 3, 2010

Tiny Men in Tight Pants

Emo's, 1/2

The most memorable thing visually about Harlem on stage is the giant drum. It's old and looks like it should be strapped to the back of a heavyset guy marching behind a sousaphone during halftime at the Rose Bowl. It's got to be 50% larger than the standard kick drums that most modern drummers use and it serves to make the members of the band look teeny by comparison. That's not a bad signature in snapshot, as there's an element of adolescence to Harlem's music (not in a bad way) that the giant bass drum makes literal. They look like happy kids playing adult-sized instruments. Then again while the colossal drum is effective as a prop, I could never hear the kicks clearly while they were playing. When they record, at least, I hope they use a regular one.

The threesome have some fine songs. They have a nice grasp of the way the bass has to work in a power trio, pumping out lines that sketch the basic melody and playing ahead of, not behind, the guitar. Their main drummer does a remarkable job of playing distinct and even memorable patterns for each song even with a stripped-down kit of one cymbal, one tom, hi-hat, snare, and that monster kick. The guitar playing really has the least to do with how the songs sound, which is as it should be -- their usual guitarist often strums the open strings one-handed, just to make noise. But it sounds good, because the drummer and especially the bassist are really holding down the grooves.

Their enthusiasm is another big selling point. I'm not a big fan of unison vocals most of the time, but I like the way that in their excitement they all slightly differ from each other when two or all three of them are shouting at the same time. It'd be nice if they could figure out how to harmonize here and there, since the songs are not limited to power chords and single-note melodies.

They made a questionable decision with a few songs left in the set. The guitar player and drummer swapped places and instruments for a few numbers, and it really sapped their momentum. It's not that the second drummer was terrible. He could play and he had rehearsed parts for the songs. It's just that he clearly wasn't as good as the guy who preceded him, and the songs didn't change any when they swapped roles. There was nothing the former drummer, now guitarist, was doing on guitar that the first player couldn't have done. They even played similar-sounding guitars through similar-sounding amps, begging the question as to why they went to all the trouble of hauling in two different guitar setups. They were still singing nearly every line together in unison, so it's not as if the drummer needed to get out from behind the drums to sing lead vocals. The songs were in the same style as before (they really only have one style, slightly fractured power pop with enough occasional rhythm shifts and riff sections to demonstrate their musicianship).

I'm not against bands running around changing instruments if it allows them to show a new element of their sound that they couldn't otherwise. Tortoise have three drummers, all of whom play many other things. John McEntire is jazz-trained and nuanced, with a resume including Gastr Del Sol and The Sea and Cake; John Herndon has a background in first hardcore bands and then the (marvelous) jam-funk-indie 5ive Style. Their styles are so completely different that you can easily pick out one from the other even on their records. McEntire whips at the snare lightly like a jazzman; Herndon's hits have a loud thwack. (And then Dan Bitney is a modern-day Mickey Hart, a gifted utility player whose talent lies in the ability to hear a second sub-pattern away from the main thread and perform to it, on bass or marimba or djembe in addition to second drumkit. Tortoise are so great. But I digress.)

Getting back to Harlem, finally, they didn't have the justification of a huge difference in style between drummers. Having their regular guitarist step behind the kit to play songs that sounded exactly the same as the ones before only wrecked their equilibrium, since his playing lacked the creativity and wild fills of his predecessor. The bass playing also got weaker after the shift, because the part-time drummer wasn't as steady and as a result the whole band dynamic kind of tilted over for the worse. Seemed like kind of an indulgent move on the whole, something that undermines the enthusiastic and friendly nature of their songs. They were also pretty unprofessional when it came to between-songs banter, and you should see what they posted on their Twitter after the gig.


  1. Hmmm, doesn't sound like the greatest concert-going experience. All I know about these guys is that the indie station on XM is playing "Friendly Ghost" and I freakin' love it!

  2. I like their songs a lot. They have license to be a little cocky. But you shouldn't practice songs before you start them at a show, you shouldn't have one-way conversations with random people in the audience from the stage, and you definitely don't want to gratuitously insult the clubs that book you in your hometown.