Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Review: 'Technicolor Health' by Harlem Shakes

Before you ask: no, the band wasn't named after the goddamn awful internet phenomenon that was Harlem Shake. Instead, they were an indie rock band from New York. Sadly the group disbanded in 2009 after recording only one full-length album, Technicolor Health. Such a shame, considering all the potential they showed on the album. But then again, nothing lasts forever.

Anyway. There are endless ways of discovering new music. You could use which recommends you new artists based on the ones you've previously listened to. You could use TuneGlue which I introduced earlier and actually uses's database. Even Spotify recommends you new music these days. And if you want to go completely outside the box, you could try Marmoset Music. (It's brilliant, I've only tried it once though but I discovered a band I fell in love head over heels with. The band actually reminded me a lot of Harlem Shakes. I might have to write about them as well.) Well, it was the autumn of 2009, I was bored and hungering for new music. I wasn't really listening to anything 'current' around that time (I had a bit of an eighties phase back then) so I logged on to, opened the '2009' tag and started skimming through the albums released that year. Based on the album covers. What a horribly shallow way to try to find new stuff! I did, however, get lucky when this particular album cover with all its dilapidated buildings and bursting rainbows attracted my attention. To me the record also holds a special place in my heart as it essentially provided a soundtrack for the last summer I spent in the town where I was born and raised and that summer was filled with sunny, carefree days - quite like the album, actually!

The sunny album kicks off with the upbeat "Nothing But Change Part II". The song is adorably naive with lyrics such "And I know I'm just a singer / but I feel it in my fingers / There are changes coming soon / Nothing but change". The song represents the album perfectly: the music might not be life-altering or revolutionary or filled with larger-than-life stories but instead it's sincere indie pop music. It sounds like a group of friends getting together and singing about the relatively carefree time that is youth. Exactly as it is. (Fortunately they avoid most of the horrible youth-related cliches unlike, say, Fun. with their super annoying teenage anthem "Young".)

"Strictly Game", also released as a single, is a (probably sarcastic) story about people's optimistic expectations for the future: "This will be a better year / this will be a better year / Make a little money, take a lot of shit / Feel real bad, then get over it / This will be a better year". That's what you'd like to believe - that life gets better after initial hardships. Musically it's still very cheerful-sounding, though, as is "TFO" which features the delightful singalong line "We got time to waste some time / We got time to waste some time now". Isn't that what youth largely consists of? The song could also be described as their 'love song to New York' (since all the NY-based indie bands have one) with lines like "We can swim in this Coney Island ocean / All gray and thick tonight" and "Our bodies blush pink like New Jersey sunsets tonight".

"Niagara Falls" is a piano-driven number that continues the theme of its predecessors with cheery music and lighthearted lyrics ("I don't even know what I'm in the game for / I don't even get your T-shirt's pun"). The same goes for "Sunlight". Now, you could imagine that the album would be quite a rainbow-coloured, saccharine-coated mess by now, you know, with all the songs being so cheery and positive. Surprisingly it isn't. It must be said though that the album does require a certain kind of a mood to properly 'click' and the string of the three songs ("TFO", "Niagara Falls", "Sunlight") may feel slightly overly happy-go-lucky.

However, they are followed by another three-song string and the definite highlight of the album. "Unhurried Hearts (Passaic Pastoral)" is a wonderful tune with the singer wondering why people can't relax and just enjoy life as it is: "Why can't we have unhurried hearts / to beat in time with our stops and our starts". It also summarises many people's objective in life: "The sun won't rest and we'll do our best / not to die unloved and broke". "Winter Water" is the only melancholic moment on the album (the album does run a little short of those) and a serious contender for the best song here, only rivalled by "Natural Man", the next song. "Winter Water" is a brilliantly wistful and longing piece that features beautiful backing vocals and amazing lyrics. It's hard to pick a definitive example but personal favourite of mine would be "Luck sleeps in the ocean, luck sleeps in the sea / Luck sleeps where she wants to sleep / but she just don't sleep with me". It's a perfect song to listen to when you're feeling down, or when you're heartbroken, or when you're just in a mood for something less happy happy joy joy.

Another stand-out track is the sublime "Natural Man". It's especially the bridge that makes it special, anthemic even. Whenever I'm gloomy and wanting to feel better I listen to this song, it's really that uplifting. It has also one of the most amusing lyrics on the album: "See how sad the real fun gets with the Morrissey girls". An indie band dissing Smiths-obsessed indie girls? What's not to love! (Do not get me wrong, I do appreciate The Smiths and Morrissey as musicians and all but their newer fans seem to be a rather... angsty bunch of 'alternative' teenage girls. No offense.) If you really look into them you can notice that the group actually has some quite interesting lyrics on the album, much better than your average bunch-of-Brooklyn-kids-getting-together hip indie bands tend to have. Even when the songs might superficially seem all cheery and summery there are some lyrical bows thrown between the lines.

However, the solid three-song combo is then followed by the most forgettable track on the record, "Radio Orlando". The song itself isn't that bad but the otherwise great singer Lexy Benaim's vocals are occasionally downright cringeworthy and even out of tune. It's a terrible shame. I always skip the track which I'm not proud of but while Benaim sounds lovely on other tracks - it is the 'unprofessionality' of his singing that makes his voice individual and pleasant to listen to - here that 'impurity' just shows too much in the wrong way. Fortunately the laid-back album closer "Technicolor Health" ends the album on a high note. (Fun fact: if you're a fan of Skins, you've probably heard it as it was used in one of JJ's episodes if my memory serves me well.)

So what is the final verdict? Well. The album has its flaws - most notably, the excess of happy, poppy tunes that are quite overwhelming in such quantities and which cannot be saved even by their witty lyrics. The LP would require more downbeat songs like the emotional "Winter Water" to even it out. That said, the music sounds fresh and exciting - albeit maybe more for summertime listening which is a bit late for this year, is it not. They could easily be labelled as 'just a generic indie band' but in my opinion they actually succeed in sounding unique: the songs have character and distinctiveness. The arrangements are lush and rich in sound and as I mentioned, Benaim's singing sounds charming in all of its imperfectness. Now, if only there was a little bit more of that character, a little bit more edge, a little bit more... something, we would really be talking about a masterpiece here. Nevertheless, if you like bands like Vampire Weekend or Phoenix, or if you're just into good indie rock/pop, check the album out. And should you lack patience, at least try the "Unhurried Hearts (Passaic Pastoral)" / "Winter Water" / "Natural Man" trio and the title track "Technicolor Health". I'm sure you'll love them.

3½ / 5

Try at least: "Unhurried Hearts (Passaic Pastoral)", "Winter Water", Natural Man"

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