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Harlem - Oh Boy Music Album Reviews

In 2010, no band seemed to be having more fun with scrappy garage rock than this one. On their first album in nine years, they forget to replace that spark with anything else.

For long-AWOL Austin garage rockers Harlem, the excitement of releasing their first album in nine years must surely be tempered by knowing they’re bound to disappoint old fans. In an interview, co-leader Michael Coomers recalled previewing Oh Boy for a friend who was bummed it was nothing like the group’s younger, wilder music. “I’d like them to like what we do next,” Coomers said of similar listeners, “but if they’re looking for that sort of stuff, I think there’s a wealth of material, music made by others, that they can go to that will satisfy that urge.”

If only: While there will never be a shortage of irreverent garage pop records, few scratched the itch as completely as Harlem’s sole Matador outing, 2010’s Hippies. It was a jubilant bear hug of a listen, its infectiousness surpassed only by its puppyish zeal. Of all the bands of that era making scrappy party jams on busted equipment, they sounded like they were having the best time. Buoyed by the fluke resurgence of beach-friendly rock’n’roll, Harlem spent a year on the road playing to eager crowds before breaking Kanye’s Mase rule: They left when they were hot. Curtis O’Mara started the Harlem-esque band Grape St., while Coomers led the more subdued Lace Curtains. Neither group rebottled the lovable mischief of Harlem’s cult classic.

The reunited songwriters return older, wiser, and completely uninterested in recreating the past on Oh Boy. They’ve slowed the tempos, upped the production, and bled nearly every trace of boyish pep from their sound. These sorts of reinventions are always hard to pull off, but not impossible. Six years after their 1980 debut, for instance, the Feelies reemerged a very different band—mellower and more pastoral than their excitable first incarnation, but no less rewarding. They didn’t just mature. They adapted.

Harlem 2.0, on the other hand, illustrate just how difficult it can be to reignite a spark that’s been snuffed out. Oh Boy is so distracted from denying the creature comforts of the band’s early work that it forgets to offer anything in their place. On “Lana,” the guys kick back with some red wine and listen to two of pop’s reigning queens; for all their Lana Del Rey and Beyoncé worship, they share neither of those artists’ drive to chart new sounds. About as cutting-edge as this record gets is “Blonde on Blonde” and “Queen of Mosquitos,” a pair of wallowing, late-night tunes with the energy of the Band’s most laid-back sessions.

Beyond the small pleasures of O’Mara and Coomers’ relaxed chemistry, there are only the faintest echoes of what used to be. With some concentration, you could imagine a raucous jam trying to break free from blue-eyed soul songs like “Smoke in Mirrors” and “Dreams Is Destiny,” but the album’s mopey grip is too tight, its dejected spirit too all-consuming. Oh Boy never gives these songs a chance to lift off. Any band returning from a long hiatus needs to be judged on a curve, but no amount of expectation mitigation can completely shield somebody with an affection for Harlem’s old records from the disappoint here. They waited nine years just to learn the party ended long ago.

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