If experimental is the norm in indie music this year, then Hippies, the inaugural LP from Austin-based Harlem, may be the most radical record we’ve heard yet. Forgoing the onslaught of genre-bending, forward-thinking sounds and styles that have characterized the best efforts of 2010, Harlem takes two steps back on its Matador debut, applying a light coating of beach-and-garage-rock grime to good old-fashioned ’50s and ’60s surf-pop revivals. Packed to the brim with foot-stomping sing-along choruses that evoke a less synthetic age of guitar, bass and drum-driven rock ‘n roll, Hippies is certainly not void of charm. Unfortunately, there’s a fine line between emulation and mimicry, and too often Harlem falls on the wrong side of that fence, delivering an album whose surface appeal soon gives way to yawn-inducing familiarity and predictable repetition.
According to the band’s MySpace page, “The only band we like is Nirvana. The only album we like is Nevermind. The only song we like is ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.'” Tongue-in-cheek or not, it’s impossible not to notice that Hippies is far more reminiscent of the British Invasion than a grunge explosion. There’s an undeniable early Fab Four quality to the chorus line of opener “Someday Soon,” while “Be Your Baby” and “Cloud Pleaser” play out like only partially modernized Herman’s Hermits tunes. The melodies and catchy guitar licks may not be pilfered exactly, but they’re pretty damn familiar throughout, and some arrangements (“Gay Human Bones”) echo all the way back to Paul Revere & the Raiders, giving listeners the impression they’re listening to a thinly-veiled cover album. At their most progressive, the trio of Michael Coomers, Curtis O’Mara and Jose Boyer sounds like this year’s Cotton Jones (“Three Legged Dog”) or a less ingenuous Rural Alberta Advantage (“Tila and I”), while hints of the Rolling Stones and the dBs can be heard as well. There’s nothing wrong with reviving any of these bands’ mojo, of course, but when musicians fail to put their own stamp on a well-established sound, they render themselves instantly forgettable, which is exactly what happens here.
If you’re thinking there has to be a measure of lyrical luster to atone for the shortage of musical inventiveness, well, think again. Most of the frustratingly conventional melodies are matched with equally humdrum lyrics (“I had my heart broken/ It was broken in two/ And if I have my heart broken/ I’m glad it was broken by you“) , while tiresome topics like recreational drug use and heartache are addressed with a campy sense of humor (“If I could be your darlin’/ You gotta start bawlin’/ For all the bullshit I give you“) that’s more likely to provoke an irritated eye roll than an empathetic grin. Of course, hell hath no fury like a hippie scorned, so the record’s not completely toothless (“One day 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‘”), but its few moments of poignancy aren’t nearly enough to save this record from the depths of ennui.
Harlem is certainly not lacking in talent or enthusiasm, as shown by the band’s ability to create infectious, radio-savvy pop tunes, but vision is another matter. Like EP Free Drugs, Hippies finds Harlem refusing to shed its safety blanket, delivering 16 mostly predictable and passé songs that sound an awful lot like each other and even more like the sounds of more established artists from decades past. Imitation might be the highest form of flattery, but there’s simply nothing on this album that we haven’t already heard before, and the source material itself is already far superior.
by Marcus David