The year was 2008, the band was Harlem, and the world of lo-fi garage rock was forever changed with the album Free Drugs ;-). Self-released under their own label Female Fantasy Records, Harlem quickly became somewhat of a local Austin phenom after relocating to Texas from Tucson, Arizona. Harlem members Curtis O’Mara and Michael Coomers (later joined by bassist Jose Boyer), swiftly landed a deal with Matador, resulting in the release of Hippies, which came out with a bang in 2010. And suddenly, they were gone, thrown into ambiguous hiatus status as Harlem members began pursuing different projects.
Harlem was one of the cult favorite bands of my high school. I don’t remember who first introduced me to Harlem, but the knowledge of their hiatus, communicated to me as a break-up, was passed along with it. This was a major bummer because Hippies really had it all. Breakup Songs (see: “Someday Soon” and “Cloud Pleaser”), Crushing-Hard-On-You Songs (see: “Be Your Baby”) and even a song about your basketball team that happens to be named “Gay Human Bones.” The music was upbeat, the lyrics were cute, sometimes cryptic, occasionally haunting, and often all three at once. Hippies was and is head-banging and deeply moving. I’m not saying it’s going to make you want to cry in a mosh-pit, but it will make you yearn for the pit as it simultaneously makes you feel something more. The 16-track record is everything you could ask of a lo-fi garage rock project.
Beyond that, I think Harlem may be one of the cutest bands of all time, and I’m using the word cute in the most complimentary, non-derogatory way possible. The fact that Hippies was to be both the beginning and end of my Harlem love affair, was, in short, heartbreaking. But to quote Harlem in response: “If I have my heartbroken, I’m glad it was broken by you!”
In light of all this, you can imagine my surprise when, in November 2018, Apple Music suggested a newly released single from Harlem’s forthcoming album. I was shocked, bewildered, about to scream. I stopped dead in my tracks on the side of Freret to do an internet search to ensure that this was, in fact, the same Harlem. Who was I to know this nine year gap was only a “hiatus?”
Quite fittingly, Harlem released Oh Boy on Valentines Day this year. Although it isn’t the same lo-fi garage rock that defined their earlier work, Oh Boy is a smooth, well-developed, pop rock album that still contains the strange and remote cuteness of O.G. Harlem. It’s subtle, but edgy in a way that places it in a similar arena to that of Foxygen. Compared to Hippies and Free Drugs😉, it is definitely more of the type of music I could play in the car with my mom without her complaining of an oncoming migraine. The inherent pleasantness of the album proves that sonic breeziness doesn’t necessitate a lack of depth.
Oh Boy opens with “All Men Are Dogs,” a lamentation on relationships, limitations, and negotiations. Followed by “Smoke In Mirrors,” which has a laid back vibe, but the chorus of “I bet it all on you” opens the album up to a certain vulnerability, and the promise of the Harlem tenderness that underpins the entire album. The third track, “Dreams is Destiny,” offers a taste of the wild Harlem sensibility, evident in the opening line: “She was on a jet-ski / in a G-string / singing Dreams is Destiny.” Later along is one for the books with the exclamation of “Long live therapy! Long live my mother!”
One of my favorites on Oh Boy is track 6: “Lana” which is in fact, an ode to Lana Del Rey. Apparently O’Mara and Coomers are big fans. Their cover of “Cola” (released on Soundcloud) was supposedly what sparked the revitalization of Harlem. On the surface, “Lana” is a sweet song in appreciation of Lana and “‘Yonce” and the feelings induced by their music, but there is something so beautiful and haunting about the music that changes the entire feel of the song. It epitomizes what Harlem is. Yes, they are cute and fun and unpretentious, but it is within this carefree, unserious attitude that you realize: they are crazy talented and should be taken seriously.
Pitchfork’s review of Oh Boy criticized it for its lack of engagement with the original sound, which came into full bloom in Hippies. While I agree the album is not lo-fi garage by any means, the idea that it contains zero trace of O.G. Harlem is, in my opinion, false, and a bit of a cop-out. However, on a less emotional and more objective note, I do think this type of review necessitates further exploration. As a band, Harlem offers a prime platform to explore the culture and—dare I say—politics, of lo-fi garage. Disappointment in Harlem’s new music begs the question: what is the inevitable future of our favorite lo-fi garage rockers everywhere?
Lo-fi garage is, in most respects, a sound bred out of circumstance; the sound is a product of the limitations surrounding its creation. Lo-fi garage says “fuck it, we’re going to do this anyway,” even though we’re still figuring it out, we don’t have the money to do it all the way, we have something, here it is. We find beauty in this irreverence. It is grounded in unrefined skill, and in a passion bursting at the seams of its material constraints. I like to think of lo-fi as music that presents the artist behind it at a precipice. It is the sound of something unfolding and developing; it is like the independent coming-of-age genre of music. Its authenticity comes from the refusal and/or inability to adhere to more polished production conventions, and a dedication to creativity instead. To try and manufacture a lo-fi sound would feel contrived, and therefore inauthentic.
Should we expect Harlem to continue producing this coming-of-age sound for the entirety of their artistic career, even as they themselves age? It would have been strange to hear Harlem after nine years still offering the same lo-fi sound. Some bands or artists may remain lo-fi forever (and that’s cool too), but Coomers and O’Mara haven’t been living in a vacuum for the past nine years. They’ve grown, they’ve aged, and the aesthetic quality of their work has evolved. If the members of Harlem have been honing their skills over the years, have developed new tastes, expanded their capacity for expression, and now have greater material resources to access higher production quality, would we expect them to toss it all to the side just to chase after the elusive sound of their youth?
Well, I would certainly hope not, for their sake and ours. While all of Harlem’s work has the classic Harlem carefree spirit, there’s nothing careless about their music. Quite the opposite: you can feel the care they’ve put into every song you’re hearing. While Oh Boy may not have the same type of exciting urgency as Free Drugs 😉 or Hippies, it still possesses all the sweetly strange tenants of Harlem’s being. You can feel the chemistry between them, and the raw vulnerability of the lyrics, still evident against the more refined production sound.
And so: it’s 2019, and I’m glad Harlem is back. And as special has Hippies was to me growing up, I am glad to be witness to Harlem’s artistic evolution. I love hearing about how much they love Lana and therapy and their mothers! I’m here for it. I think it’s easy to play the disappointment card if you’re looking at Oh Boy on the surface, and not as a piece in a much larger puzzle of the unpretentiously funny, cute, and damn talented band called Harlem. Harlem may sound softer, but they definitely have not lost their edge. And if you’re still not convinced, check out their Twitter.
COVER PHOTO: Do 512