Thursday, April 1, 2010

Very Smart

Mohawk, 4/1

April 1st was the precise right day to have a hometown record release show for Harlem. In the best sense of the term, these guys are con artists. Misdirection isn't just for magicians. One of the few worthwhile moments of the largely tedious guitar documentary It Might Get Loud (mostly of note for revealing that The Edge is an enormous tool who's so dependent on technology that he doesn't even understand basic music theory concepts like the difference between time signature and tempo) arrives when Jack White revealingly breaks down the White Stripes' formula. By putting himself and his drummer into brightly-colored outfits and dressing their equipment in peppermint swirls and candy-cane stripes, White successfully deflected listeners from recognizing that the band's music was just elementary blues. Everything old is new again.

Harlem's tendency to come across like loutish, inebriated naïfs isn't totally a put-on. They do like to drink, and the inimitable Coomers has a take-it-or-leave-it persona built around relentless, aggressive self-deprecation. But whether it's by design or accident, the band has been able to direct most of the responses to their music in such a way that critics generally undersell them. Terms like "ramshackle" or "accidental" abound. And that works for Harlem, because it makes them seem much cooler if they're touted as a trio of idiot savants.

They are however not amateurs. As songwriters they have way more in common with Elvis Costello or Adam Schlesinger than Daniel Johnston or Jad Fair. The first time I saw them, they fooled me, pretending to forget their own songs and basically not giving a toss about crowd reaction, into thinking they were a lot more basic musically than they indeed are. Many of Harlem's songs -- most of them, really -- have totally orchestrated tempo shifts (not time signature changes, Edge) and arrangements designed to illuminate their excellent vocal melodies in the most flattering light. In the way their songs use simple pounding backbeats and swinging basslines, they remind me most of 60's girl groups, with a bit of early-rock mysticism derived from Howlin' Wolf and Screamin' Jay Hawkins. "Be Your Baby" could be a Ronettes song, delivered as it is with a streamlined beat and hooks burnished with professional care. I swear at certain points during Thursday's show they deliberately lost sync. However when it counted -- when a song needed a payoff -- they were right on it. Curious.

They wouldn't have been the subject of an indie-powerhouse bidding war if most people focused on their craftsmanship, but that's what I like most about them. Nobody writes songs this good without first studying the classics in precise detail. Harlem try very, very hard to make it appear as if they don't care and their music is effortless to them. Sorry, I'm not buying it. Now that their ruse has paid off and they have a following and a heavyweight label, it's probably OK to present themselves in a more grown-up light.

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