Live: The Harlem Shakes’ Avant-Twee Utopia



Harlem Shakes
Wednesday, May 6

The knock — OK, one of the knocks — on Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist is its portrayal of the Lower East Side as a relentlessly precocious, shiny, happy fantasy-land where beautiful people prance about listening to Bishop Allen and saying impossibly witty things and finding themselves and whatnot. No grit, no blight, no consequence, no danger. Harlem Shakes, cute name and all, often evoke this somewhat unseemly utopia — blithely merry melodies, toy-store percussion, a vague children’s-librarian vibe — but with just enough knowing melancholy to undercut it. Yeah, the anthemic bummer “Strictly Game” has that line about making lemons into lemonade, but its chorus is a splendidly odd and biting sing-a-long:

This will be a better year
This will be a better year
Make a little money
Take a lot of shit
Feel real bad and then get over it

Piano’s is brutally crowded (Rachael Ray is milling about for some reason, maybe she just brought a giant-ass entourage), and via drum machines, tambourines, and other ephemera the Shakes favor a polyrhythmic clatter in which the various rhythms don’t get along all that well, but the resulting kiddie-junkyard cacophony has undeniable appeal even as it shades into noisy discord. I keep returning to their debut, Technicolor Health, and can’t say exactly why. It’s comforting I guess without being absurd or patronizing: avant-twee symphonies for sensitive kids quite aware how bad the city can hurt them but thirsting for quirky, giddy indie-pop that helps them forget. In any event, they’re better than Bishop Allen.