Austin, Texas is apparently a hotbed for lo-fi garage bands. Harlem, who aren’t from New York at all, fit in quite nicely the rest of the Austin natives vying for the same demographic, playing seemingly from a garage on the sunnier side of the street. Their second album, Hippies, is bubblegum trash-pop at its simplest and it positively oozes boardwalk cool.
Harlem don’t sound much different from Strange Boys on first listen. But where Strange Boys sound like they’ve got something to prove, Harlem sound more like they just want to have fun and meet girls, all the while not taking themselves too seriously. Black Joe Lewis does a similar thing, but with a gutter-soul delivery that smacks of emulation. Meanwhile, Harlem don’t sound directly like one band or another; they’re capturing the good feelings of an entire movement.
Despite the album title, which calls up images of Woodstock or the riot at Altamont, Hippies is more reminiscent of ’50s rock ‘n’ roll than its later peace and love incarnation. The sloppy musicianship and purposeful low fidelity of the recordings actually stacks up nicely to early frat-rock stuff by The Kingsmen, The Trashmen, and The Standells.
Hippies (whose 16 tracks rarely break the three-minute mark) opens with a sugar-pop bang. In Someday Soon, Michael Coomers delivers this brash and disconcerting warning: “Someday soon, you’ll be on fire and you’ll ask me for a glass of water. And I’ll say no, you can just let that shit burn.”
Be Your Baby – which assumes roughly the same tune and chord structure as Richie Valens‘ Come On, Let’s Go – seems to be an answer to The Ronettes classic Be My Baby, from the point of view of a guy who gives his girl a lot of “bullshit” and plays “guitar from G to C.” “I just wanna be your baby,” Coomers rasps. “No, I don’t mean maybe.” So, it’s not poetry.
The first single, Gay Human Bones, features harmonies that don’t quite harmonise and hip-shakes its way through a largely unintelligible narrative whose high points include “water moccasins crawling through my hair.” Friendly Ghost is all Surfin’ Bird with the almost audible sneering bravado of the hand-clap chorus: “I wanna disappear all the time. I’ll probably disappear tonight.”
Other tracks feature such varied and wonderful titles as Stripper Sunset, Pissed, Three Legged Dog, and Poolside. The individual songs don’t matter so much; they all jangle along in short bursts strung together to form a singular and sustained clatter-cloud. There’s a lot of That Thing You Do drumming, and lazy tambourines, and the guitars and vocals pick up so much room noise, it’s tough to make out the melodic intentions at times, but Harlem fill a void in the lo-fi scene we didn’t know existed. They’re the new Archies of sticky-sweet bubblegum pop.
The music on Hippies is formulaic, but in their ability to work so perfectly within a rigid aesthetic, Harlem hint at real songwriting ability. No one sounds this trashy naturally; these boys obviously work hard to seem so tousled and disaffected. It’ll be interesting to see where they shake out when the current lo-fi train eventually derails.