Today is Part 1 of a Harem Scarem double-header!
Most bands have that one benchmark album. You know the one: the album that all others are compared against. Every time the band releases a new album, you usually hear, “Best album since blank!” For Harem Scarem, Mood Swings is that album. Only two records into their long and prolific career, and they already put out their magnum opus.
Harem Scarem were (and are) better than the average hard rock band. With Pete Lesperance on guitar, they had a guy who was able to do Nuno-like shreddery. They had two guys — Harry Hess and Darren Smith — who can sing lead. They also had two great backing singers, Lesperance and Mike Gionet. (Darren “DJ” Smith was even the oft-criticized frontman for Jake E. Lee’s solo band Red Dragon Cartel.) Together though, the four guys were able to create Queen-like harmonies that added depth to the music. Fact is, Harem Scarem put out a better album in 1993 than many of the top selling rock records of that year. I saw the band live in early 1992, and they were still doing covers in their set at that time. They really impressed with two unusual covers that showed off their talents: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”. Impressive stuff. The prospects for the next album were promising.
As if to say “Check THIS shit out,” Lesperance opens the CD with some pretty impressive licks, before diving head first into the riff to “Saviors Never Cry”. (I’m sure Negan agrees with that sentiment.) With the pomp and circumstance of a band trying to expand its horizons, “Saviors Never Cry” provides the thrills & chills. Slight keyboard accents and tricky licks proved that this was not a band of pretty boys, but a group of musicians taking no prisoners. When “No Justice” commences with those layered harmony vocals, your ass will be sore from all the kicking. You can’t find a stronger chorus anywhere, but it’s not wimp rock. As a first single, it drove home the band’s growth since LP #1. Their trajectory was much in line with their American counterparts, Extreme, who were growing album by album.
Backwards guitar lulls you in for “Stranger Than Love”, a radio ready track with more of the powerful patented Harem Scarem vocals. Hess looks like a lion with that curly mane of his, and he roars like one too. While songs such as “Stranger Than Love” are completely accessible to anyone, “Change Comes Around” is full throttle. With the speedometer in the red, yet harmonies intact, Harem Scarem blazed the tarmac clean. Unlike their grunge opponents, Harem Scarem focused on the positive in their lyrics. “When all your faith is gone, don’t let it pull you under. Change comes around, sail on to higher ground.” Generic inspirational rock nonsense? Absolutely. Great fun to sing along with? Definitely.
Harem Scarem are a diverse rock band, and “Jealousy” is the first change of pace. A sparse arrangement allows the instruments to stand out more, which Lesperance uses to lay down bluesy lick after bluesy lick. It’s not a blues song, but it’s influenced by blues. It was a brilliant side closer, fading out and making way for the lead vocal debut of Darren Smith. The drummer nails “Sentimental Blvd.” He sounds a bit like the late Eric Carr (Kiss) on this pop rocker. Boppy piano provides even more melodic backbone to an already strong song.
Lesperance is a talented enough player to earn an instrumental solo track, which is the ballad “Mandy”. A good guitar instrumental should be both melodic and adventurous. It should be memorable, but hopefully the soloist is pushing their own talents. “Mandy” succeeds in both technique and songwriting. It gives way to one of the heaviest album tracks, “Empty Promises”. Without losing their sound or harmonies, Scarem’s “Empty Promises” manages to crack the concrete with a wrecking ball of heavy rock.
“If There Was a Time” is one of the most impressive ballads on the album, possessing both darkness and light sides. Once again the harmonies sell it. The musicianship isn’t busy but it’s eloquent just the same. At this point the CD really seems to be building towards a conclusion. The climax is acappella: “Just Like I Planned” is as splendid as it is ingenious. That’s “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” rubbing off on the album, I’ll wager. How many rock bands outside Queen attempt full-length acappella songs?
You just need to blow off some steam at the end, and all this builds up to “Had Enough”, a bright track that reeks of Van Halen (or Hagar). It has a great bottom end and some final thrilling chops from Pete Lesperance. This completes the journey of Mood Swings, which is an apt title given the diversity of the songs. Not only are the tunes all great numbers, but the album does have a start, middle and ending. There are sentimental moments, and action packed interludes. It’s more than the sum of its parts, and that’s one reason why Harem Scarem keep having to live up to it.
So much so, that they even went as far as re-recording Mood Swings. According to Superdekes, in his review of Mood Swings, “In 2013 Harem wanted to release a 20th anniversary edition of Mood Swings, but their old record company said ‘Nope’. So Harry and Pete said ‘Fuck you’ and re-recorded Mood Swings with three extra new songs.” That’s why today you can look for the original Mood Swings, or the reasonable facsimile and update, Mood Swings II. It is so close to the original in sound and even lead vocals that conspiracy theorists believe that Harry Hess has indeed finally solved time travel.
No matter which version you ultimately choose, Mood Swings will continue to reveal new joys every time you play it. If there is such a thing as a perfect hard rock record (smart, memorable, surprising, exemplary) then Mood Swings is one of them.