In “Cloud Pleaser,” a song that hitches down-home heartbreak blues to a Kinks-like melody, Harlem’s sometimes-frontman Michael Coomer sings, “I went to your wedding wearing a funeral veil /said something wrong, now I’m in jail,” breezing past the specifics of what he said that was bad enough to land him behind bars. Harlem‘s not big on details. The songs on their sophomore effort, Hippies, come off as 50-some years of garage-rock history rendered into quick sketches. They need a guitar, a bass and drums, a guy who can sort of play each, a few beers, some analog tape, and they’re ready to make a 16-track record. Hooks seem to be the priority, leaving the rest of the song to be dealt with later, or just not at all, which works for them.
It’s a sign of the times, of course, that after self-releasing their debut, the same slop-pop aesthetic stays very much intact on Hippies, though their recording budget presumably swelled once they signed with Matador. Opener “Someday Soon,” matches the slapdash production with sarcastic lyrics that sound like they were written in minutes. When Coomer croaks, “Someday soon you’ll be on fire/ you’ll ask me for a glass of water/and I’ll say no,” holding onto that last syllable to really make it burn, it’s hard not to think of fellow troublemakers the Black Lips or Smith Westerns, but then “Spray Paint” channels 50s pulp noir and “Be Your Baby” is all-out 60s bubblegum. At the hands of co-singer/songwriter Curtis O’Mara, songs tend to swing away from cynicism: “Friendly Ghost” is an ode to Casper seeped in the Southern grizzle of Deer Tick. But after six or seven tracks, you start to wonder if Harlem spent their increased budget not on production or experimenting with new sounds, but on just making more songs. Their hooks are huge, but there’s nothing particularly novel about Harlem’s garage rock to warrant 16 tracks.