HAREM SCAREM – Harem Scarem (1991 WEA)
Harem Scarem didn’t emerge from the Toronto rock scene fully formed. Rather, they first appeared as an AOR pop rock group, assisted by pro writers such as Marc Ribler, Christopher Ward (“Black Velvet”) and Honeymoon Suite’s Ray Coburn. My sister Kathryn liked Harem Scarem because their singer’s hair made him visually resemble a lion! It would take them until album #2 to shed the outside writers and find their feet as a progressive pop rock band more akin to Extreme than Bon Jovi.
They did, however, create a buzz by selling loads of copies of their demo CD. This was a rare thing, since most bands released demos on tape. Very few had the resources to put together a CD, and this got them signed to Warner.
The result is Harem Scarem, a somewhat faceless but incredibly hooky pop rock record waiting for radio play. It spawned five singles, including the huge (Canadian) hit “Honestly”. “Honestly” might be most notable today for its video, a cheesy affair starring Judge Reinhold!
What makes Harem Scarem special is the vocal work of lead singer Harry Hess. The man has a powerful voice, and when teamed up with drummer Darren Smith, the result is a big thick layered harmony. The band was rounded out by bassist Mike Gionet, and virtuoso guitarist Pete Lesperance, who really didn’t get to properly show off his chops until album #2. He does shred here, but sparingly and somewhat buried in the mix.
The debut album is loaded with mid-tempo rockers and ballads. A few too many ballads if you asked me, side one of the album has three ballady tracks in a row. It was 1991, grunge had yet to appear, and a mixture of ballads and rockers was the tried and true path to radio and video play. The best ballad isn’t the hit “Honestly”, which I find incredibly boring, but the closing song “Something To Say”. It’s an acoustic winner, and features plenty of Pete’s enviable chops. Harry sings passionately; this is a song that fits in with the acoustic hits of the day such as “More Than Words” and “To Be With You”.
Rather than the ballads, I keep coming back to the rockers. “Hard To Love”, which opens the album, is one of those AOR tunes that Bon Jovi only wishes he could have written. “How Long” is similar, catchy as hell, a singalong rocker that begs the windows to be rolled down on a hot summer day.
The centrepiece of the album was “Slowly Slipping Away”, the debut single/video. Still a great song today, this straddles the boundary between rocker and ballad. Opening with acoustic guitars, it soon works its way into a killer chorus, with guitar hooks and powerful harmonies galore. This is the song that got me into the band, as soon as I heard it, I knew this band had something uniquely theirs to offer. Unfortunately it took them a while to fully expand upon their sound.
I saw Harem Scarem live at Stages in Kitchener early in 1992. They played most of this album, some new material, as well as a couple covers: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”. They complained that the bar owners made them play covers, but it was “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” that underlined their potential. They absolutely nailed it and proved that they had a lot more to offer than the simple AOR of their album.
I signed up to be a member of the fanclub, and I still have my membership card. I’m glad I was on board from the ground up, since the band grew by leaps and bounds in the years to follow.
The Japanese import version of this album had three bonus tracks: acoustic renderings of “Slowly Slipping Away”, “How Long”, and “Hard To Love”. Those songs were available on a limited edition Acoustic Sessions EP, which I reviewed here.
If you’re into AOR rock, with lush harmonies, ballads, and melody, then you need to add Harem Scarem to your collection, particularly since the band have recently reunited. If that’s not your thing, fear not: I have a feeling you’d be into their later material such as Mood Swings and Karma Cleansing. This band had a lot more to offer than just rockers and ballads.