Time to Cut Loose

Tucsonans get a chance to see what they missed the first time around with Harlem

Listen, I like Bob Dylan as much as anyone. The guy's the greatest songwriter who ever lived. Who else could toss off lines like, "He not busy being born is busy dying?" as if they were week-old fishwrap, then repeat the feat hundreds of times over?

I love Leonard Cohen, too. Who else could make the darkness so beautiful?

Tom Waits? Should I go on? These are all Very Important Songwriters, you see, with Very Important Things to say. And thank goodness they said them; somebody had to.

But sometimes, you don't want to ponder the Big Questions. No, sometimes you want to just put on some great tunes that you don't have to think about so much. Sometimes you just need to cut loose. That's what Harlem is there for.

The trio's latest album, Hippies, released by Matador on April 6, crams 16 earworms into 40 minutes, and it won't have you pondering every grain of sand when you listen to it. More likely, you'll be dancing around in front of the speakers in your bedroom.

Not that Harlem's music is willfully dumb. It takes some brains, after all, to craft songs like Hippies' second single, "Friendly Ghost," which stuffs three distinct, killer hooks into three minutes of pure joy and abandon—even if the song could be misread as a dig at Tucson.

Harlem started its life in the Old Pueblo as one of the many bands of singer/drummer/guitarist/songwriters Curtis O'Mara and Michael Coomer (aka "Coomers"). After playing around town and recording a self-produced album, Free Drugs ;-), Coomers moved to San Francisco for a spell; O'Mara went to Nashville, but the duo eventually settled in Austin. It was there that they added a bassist, Jose Boyer.

Here's a typically fictitious version of the events via e-mail from Coomers: "Curtis fell in the ditch left over from the Fourth Avenue underpass (while chasing some girl in a White Zombie shirt). After he was done with physical therapy, we moved to Austin."

On Friday, June 25, Harlem will play its fourth local show since the April release of Hippies, at Plush.

According to most accounts—the group is notoriously evasive in interviews—shortly after the move to Texas, they were asked to appear on Casual Victim Pile, a compilation of bands from Austin and Denton released on Matador in January. ("Casual Victim Pile" is an anagram of "Live Music Capital.") Shortly after the comp's release, Matador signed Harlem. Hippies was released three months later.

Where Free Drugs ;-) fit a dozen garage-y pop songs into a half-hour, the scope of Hippies is a bit more diverse, and tempos vary a bit more.

While garage rock has endured, from ? and the Mysterians to the Sonics to the Lyres, Harlem has come along at a time when a pretty remarkable crop of bands is taking the style and punking it up just a bit. The melodies are straight out of the past, referencing late-'50s and '60s pop songs—but there's also a definite 21st-century punk element there, too, even if it's harder to put a finger on.

When I pose the question—and I'm paraphrasing—"Do you consider Harlem to be one of a number of bands that looks to the past for a sense of melody, but which couches those melodies in a loose, lo-fi, garage-y sensibility?" to Coomers by e-mail, he answers, in typical bratty style: "I don't consider Harlem anything other than some band I'm in. I do consider there to be a growing community of music journalists who like to use the word lo-fi. Do you consider yourself to be one of those journalists?"

Oh, snap!

Still, while Free Drugs ;-) was an overlooked slab of endearing ditties that split the difference between fun, dumb garage rock and endearing pop melodies, Hippies sounds like someone dropped a cup of sugar on a grimy floor while baking a cake, and then decided to add it to the bowl anyway. Jangly guitars, which occasionally sound slightly out of tune, are slapped up against Boyer's thudding bass and thudding, recklessly played drums. (Coomers and O'Mara switch off on guitar and drums, both on recordings and live.)

Asked if he agrees about the leap in songwriting on Hippies, Coomers writes: "The world is getting dumber; our songs have stayed the same."

Hippies begins with the near a cappella lines: "Someday soon you'll be on fire / and you'll ask me for a glass of water / I'll say, 'No, you can just let that shit burn.' / And you'll say, 'Please, please, please, put me out.'" The song is called "Someday Soon," and despite the cold-as-ice lyrics, it draws upon Motown for inspiration, which gives it, like much of the album, a certain innocence.

Next up is the chugging, multi-hooked current single "Friendly Ghost," which opens with, "I live in a graveyard / I wanna go out but it's too hot." (The chorus is "I wanna disappear all the time / probably disappear tonight.") When I ask if the song was inspired by Tucson, Coomers only writes, "No, the song wasn't written in Tucson."

Elsewhere on the album, "Be Your Baby" includes the tired old lyric, "I just want to be your baby / I don't mean maybe," but it's so giddily infectious that it doesn't really matter. (Hell, even Dylan wrote "Man Gave Names to All the Animals.") "Spray Paint," with its spy-theme-influenced guitar, could be the theme for the next James Bond joint. Hey, if Jack White can do it ...

Speaking of which, following their first-ever European tour and the string of West Coast dates that begins in Tucson, Harlem will spend much of July opening shows all over the United States for White's Dead Weather. Somewhere in there, they'll also perform at Chicago's Lollapalooza and The Village Voice's 10th anniversary Siren Festival on Coney Island.

Kris Kerry, who books bands for Plush, told me recently that when he used to book Harlem during their time in Tucson, they'd draw about 20 people. "But I liked what they were doing, so I booked 'em a few times—only about four or five times. Then they moved away, and the rest is history."

You can bet there will be more than 20 people at Plush on Friday to see what they missed out on the first time around.


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