REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Rubber (Domestic and Japanese versions)

HAREM SCAREM – Rubber (1999 Warner Japan)
RUBBER – Rubber (2000 Warner Canada)

Time hasn’t been too unkind to Rubber, the experimental Harem Scarem album where they actually changed the band’s name to match.  Except in Japan where Harem Scarem were huge, a strange album by a band called Rubber emerged in the summer of 2000.  A generic, low budget rubber duckie adorned its cover.  No picture of the band on the back, but the mixing credits of Harry Hess and Pete Lesperance revealed the connection.  In Japan, the album was released in 1999 as a full-on Harem Scarem album, with all four band members depicted on the back, including Barry Donaghy and Darren Smith.  (Notably, Smith is not pictured nor listed as a band member on the domestic CD, as by the time it was released, he had left the band.)

What’s the fuss, then?  Harem Scarem had released a series of excellent albums with rarely a dud, but little impact in Canada or the United States.  Their albums had been skewing progressively more pop as the 1990s wore on.  By Rubber, it could almost have been considered a complete re-invention to a pop rock sound, heavily influenced by the simplicity of 90s pop-punk bands.  So the band was relaunched in hopes that some people thought they were a new hot group on the scene with a sizzling debut.

The Japanese and domestic CDs had different running orders, but since it was released in Japan first that’s the track list we’ll be following, including exclusive bonus song “Enemy”.  To its merit, the domestic CD includes an exclusive remix of “Sunshine” by noted producer Arnold Lanni.

“It’s Gotta Be” opens the album with a very 90s-sounding simple descending guitar riff.  It stands upon a catchy chorus, which Harry Hess delivers with the usual melodic expertise.  There are stronger tunes on the album, but “It’s Gotta Be” sounds very much like what was on the radio and video at the time.  Bands like Marvelous 3.

The oddly titled “Who-Buddy” is more like it!  Fast-paced (again, think pop-punk), with twang and candy-coated melody.  The build-up to the chorus can’t be resisted.  So very different from Harem Scarem of old, but the same four guys do it well.  Hess and Lesperance have always had a foot in pop, as demonstrated on the very mainstream Harem Scarem debut.  Pop changed quite a bit from 1990 to 2000, and “Who-Buddy” is a reflection of that evolution.

“Coming Down” is a different kind of pop, more lush with Spanish-influenced guitar twang.  Slower paced, but just as focused on melody, “Coming Down” is a lovely song that reminds of the melancholy music of the time.  “Didn’t know the grass is always greener, and then those blades cut my own hands.”

Thing really go pop-punk on the outstanding single “Stuck With You”.  As Hess sings, “There couldn’t be anymore anarchy if we tried,” you believe he’s 22 years old.  Smith’s busy drumming is on the mark, and the chorus just soaks into you until it’s just…stuck with you!  On the cover for the CD single, the three remaining guys are depicted with contemporary short spiky hair.  If not for the lack of neck tattoos they could have been Blink 192.  There’s even a reference to the current events of the time.  “The killer bees, casualties, everybody’s paying a price.”  Remember the killer bee scare of the late 90s?  The bees never came.

Unfortunately the hit never came either.  Though a brilliant song, it was impaired by a truly terrible music video about a kid who eats a variety of objects including a rubber duckie (seemingly containing the band), a doll and his little sister.  Somebody should have deep-sixed that idea.

“Sunshine” opens with typically late-90s skippy sound effects and adornments.  The Japanese version is 4:56 in length; Arnold Lanni trimmed his mix down to 3:54.  A slow pop song with distorted watery vocals on the Japanese mix, it’s a unique sounding track that fit into the alterna-flavours of the era.  Motley Crue made a whole album mixed like this, except it was shit and called Generation Swine.  The Lanni mix on the domestic CD retains the sound effects but ditches the vocal distortion, in favour of a clean mix that is easier on the ears, including additional backing harmonies.  Both versions have their merits, with the Japanese as a more spacey, experimental track and the Lanni version more aimed at radio.

Next up is the rockabilly “Face It”, continuing the twang of previous songs.  Unfortunate album filler compared to the others.  Smith’s drumming up a storm though!  “Trip” is more fun with a bendy 90s riff, and lead vocals by Pete Lesperance.   The chorus is suitably snotty.  Another odd title, “Pool Party” conceals an interesting if not quite memorable enough song.  The music is a little off-kilter, hinting at the band’s truly excellent schooled musicianship that was largely simplified for this album.

Back to the upbeat, “Headache” is pure bangin’ fun, with influences from rock to punk to ska.  Then an understated ballad called “Everybody Else” sits in the penultimate slot, building tension with a stealthy backdrop of strings.  Similar to past dark Harem Scarem ballads though wildly different in production.  Then we close on the Japanese exclusive “Enemy”, an upbeat track with a big chorus.

Harem Scarem continued with the dual identity for a few more albums before reverting back to their original sound and name.  As Rubber, they next released Ultra Feel, Weight of the World and Live at the GodsWeight of the World was a return to their classic, slightly progressive hard rock sound and so the name change back to Harem Scarem was sure to follow.  By 2003 the Rubber experiment was fully exhausted and the album Higher was the first to have no connection to that name.  From the Rubber era, only Weight of the World was included in the expansive Harem Scarem box set.

Rubber the album isn’t bad though.  It’s better than the followup Ultra Feel, and though dated, still contains a number of good songs that are fully enjoyable today.  The best track is clearly “Stuck With You”, despite the atrocious music video.

3.5/5 stars

6 comments

  1. I have this digitally, don’t ask, but still don’t have the physical copy. I do need to get to help finish off the Harem collection. I’m with you on it, a decent album but not near the best work.

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    1. Hell yeah. I never stopped buying their stuff. I had a customer who… I don’t know how to explain this… he acquired a hell of a lot of Japanese imports and sold them to me. Where did he get them? He said he bought them in Toronto. I think he stole them. But hey. Couldn’t prove it.

      Liked by 1 person

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