Rock critics being the shallow pontificators we are (going into detail doesn’t pay the rent), some will inevitably point to the most surface-level element of the Harlem Shakes as a source of criticism: their name. The band kept the moniker from a previous incarnation used when they were more in the club scene, and on their debut LP, Technicolor Health, they play a brand of indie pop that inevitably will appeal mainly to white kids. Of course, that problem never really hurt the Atlanta-based Of Montreal, but while both bands swiped the names of areas largely populated by a historically disenfranchised ethnicity, the Harlem Shakes named their band after a place where the oppressed group happened to create the music that was swiped at very the foundation of rock ‘n’ roll. (Not even Carl Wilson can convince the hip to musically swipe from Celine Dion.)
In reality, Technicolor Health is a remarkably eclectic, dynamic album even in its use of rather obvious launching points. Like the band’s highly praised Burning Birthdays EP, the album never stays in one place for too long, absorbing pop standards both new and old in a manner that may sometimes frustrate, but is more often ebullient and almost always surprising. The constant shifting of tone is made more remarkable by the fact that the album almost universally stays upbeat. Even in a time where it’s hard to really feel happy about anything, Technicolor Health is a bright spot of pure pop medicine that will help many a listener get through the day. That’s even taking into account the sour aftertaste of the last decade or so of empty indie rock , which saw its previously defiant sense of ethics get trampled over like a doormat.
One big question to address in the New Depression is whether we would prefer our music happy or as bitter as we are. Escapism has always been a key element of pop culture, but escapism usually becomes less of a priority when no one can afford to escape when there’s not enough time in your day. With an endless glut (rut?) of bands to choose from in a flooded music scene (thank you Pro Tools), will the poor, unemployed, embittered young choose a band that fills them with fleeting but legitimate joy, or will they go back to the music that fed the polemic rage of previous generations?
Technicolor Health is positive from start to finish, but it’s by no means empty escapism either. This being a New York band, the Harlem Shakes are fully aware of all the contradictions, decadency, and tribal mentality that can emerge both in Brooklyn and the indie-rock scene in general. But by using that intelligence, they’ve crafted a happy album for hard times that, unlike many other bands in this mold doesn’t sound like it’s written for a secret club.
Horns mix so effervescently with synths on tracks like “Strictly Game” that it’s easy to ignore the chorus melodically out of Neil Young but with the encouraging (perhaps foolish) lyric “This will be a better year.” This is territory that labelmates the Walkmen touched with “In the New Year,” but the Shakes turn the sentiment that the Walkmen used as timeliness for always looking around the corner, less corny than Annie, but less sardonic than Life of Brian. There’s brilliant percussion work on “TFO,” which offsets the few minor key notes to be found on the album. There’s even pastoral pop that few New York bands have handled so effectively without at least spending major portions of their lives in locations with lots of trees.
Is it too soon to call Animal Collective an influence on new bands? Either way, it’s hard to debate that there’s a touch of AC-style fragmentation mixed in with Brian Wilson harmonies. Instead of the burts of experimentation AC takes, however, the Harlem Shakes make an entire album out of what Animal Collective will often tease you with (going back to the Sung Tongs era, at least). In another twist on a Brooklyn scene standard, lead singer Lexy Benaim sounds like Alec Ounsworth if he suddenly lost the need to sing from the throat on tough notes. Overall, this is smart pop that isn’t pure bubblegum, or too self-absorbed. For once, you can listen to a pop album by a Brooklyn band and not have a worry about a crisis of conscience. If this is what happens to pop music, indie or otherwise, in the Obama presidency, we’re already on the way to recovery — artistically, at least.