Sunday, January 16, 2022

Harlem Lake - A Fool's Paradise Vol.1

I’ll say this right at the top.  This debut album by Dutch band Harlem Lake is a mixed bag.  It’s stylistically diverse in a way that makes me think they haven’t really found their identity yet.  And the quality is variable too, with some songs that really needed more work.  But for all that, there are good things going on here too – and signs of better things to come, I hope.
“It’s like old Blues souls are trapped in these young bodies,” says a bit of PR bumf about A Fool’s Paradise Vol.1.  And yeah, there’s blues stuff going on over the course of the album, and we’ll get to that.  But in fact Harlem Lake are more interesting when they step off the blues trail.
Harlem Lake - happiness is a debut album

Opening track ‘Deaf Blind’ kicks off with a pleasingly gutsy, winding riff, but it really grabs the ear with a progg-ish bridge on which Dave Warmerdam’s organ and Sonny Ray van den Berg’s guitar get all Wishbone Ash with a clarion call of a descending motif.  The same is true on the pseudo-heraldic theme that recurs throughout the low key title track, on which van den Berg offers up some fluid, dreamy guitar work.  Later, twinkling guitar introduces ‘I Won’t Complain’, which has a pleasing folk-rockish melody in spite of its somewhat disjointed arrangement, and gets more positive marks when its goes through the gears, van den Berg delivering a powerful solo en route to another big, melodic riff in a Wishbone Ash vein, with an undertow rippling piano from Warmerdam.
These songs suit the voice of singer Janne Timmer, even if the melodies are sometimes less than gripping.  She can do the blues chanteuse bit, as she demonstrates on the loping closer ‘I Wish I Could Go Running’.  But with her crisp, sometimes strident delivery she strikes me as more of a Grace Slick type, as on ‘My Turn To Learn’, which marries a rolling, bluesy guitar line to a not-so-bluesy, more folky melody, before van den Berg kicks in with some piercing guitar licks.  And she can do a subtle turn too, as on ‘Guide Me Home’, a soulful ballad that focuses on the melody to good effect as Timmer delivers a delicate vocal embellished by moments of coo-ing and sighing variation.
‘Please Watch My Bag’ is funk-leaning, with swells of organ, but musically a bit predictable and with a title more intriguing than the actual lyric.  But ‘The River’ is a decent chunk of blues-rock, with a twisting and turning slide guitar riff, pulsing bass and drums from Kjetl Ostendorf and Benjamim Torbijn on the brooding verse, and an appealing, attention-snagging chorus.  The bridge is a bit run-of-the-mill, but van den Berg makes up for it with a sizzling, scurrying guitar solo.  The aforementioned ‘I Wish I Could Go Running’, meanwhile, is a straight-ahead 12-bar blues with a low-slung riff, kept just the right side of humdrum by another good vocal and van den Berg finding his blues mojo for a tasty solo when they rev it up a bit.  (I was really hoping for a quirky lyric to go with that title, mind you – ‘I wish I could go running, but I tore my calf last week,’ maybe.)
Okay, so I’ve highlighted several flaws evident on A Fool’s Paradise Vol.1.  But with musicianship that’s never in doubt, I reckon Harlem Lake have the potential to produce something striking next time around, if they can find a clearer direction and up the ante on the songwriting front.  Good luck to ‘em.
A Fool’s Paradise Vol.1 is out now, and can be ordered here.

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