Mood Swings

REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Live and Acoustic (1994 EP)

Part 1 of a Harem Scarem triple play!

live-and-acousticHAREM SCAREM – Live and Acoustic (1994 Warner EP, autographed cover pictured above)

Nothing wrong with releasing an EP in between albums, right?  Certainly not.  In Harem Scarem’s case, they collected some rare stuff and released it as an EP to tide fans over until album #3.  A strong album like Mood Swings deserved a little follow-up, to present some of its material live.  Recorded in Toronto, “No Justice”, “Hard to Love” and the instrumental “Mandy” kick it hard.  Here is the proof that Harem Scarem could pull of their thick harmonies live.  Having four singers in the band didn’t hurt, and Pete Lesperance’s guitar flourishes add the necessary pyrotechnics.  His solo spot on “Mandy” is a nice moment to spotlight a very under appreciated player.  Accompanied by drummer Darren Smith, “Mandy” is transformed live into something a little bigger.  “Hard to Love” is beefier than the version from the band’s first album, thanks in no small part to Smith’s ample backup singing.

The three live tracks and the included single edit of the ballad “If There Was a Time” are all taken from the CD single for that song.  “If There Was a Time” is one of the band’s most complex ballads, so an edit probably made it a bit more digestible to the masses.  For added value, two acoustic versions and one more single edit “Something to Say” from the first album) are also included.  The single for “If There Was a Time” is much rarer, so it was nice of Warner to release these things on something with better distribution, according to the back cover, this seems to have been done in collaboration with Warner Music Japan, which would explain why the it looks like a Japanese import from the side.

The acoustic tracks are fantastic:  “Jealousy” always seemed like it would be great in the fully-acoustic format.  It’s a great little acoustic jam, with Harry Hess showing off his impressive pipes much more so than the album version.  The other acoustic version is “Honestly”, which is cool, because that hit ballad was original arranged for piano and keyboards.  This version is done for acoustic guitars, which makes it less lush but more (pardon the pun) honest.

Looking back to 1994, it was reassuring to see new Harem Scarem product on the shelves at a time when there was no certainty for bands of their ilk.  Live and Acoustic was no exploit EP, as was unfortunately common.  It presented a smattering of rarities collected together in one easy package.  The single edits are not crucial, but it’s a seven song EP so it’s easy to look at these as just an added bonus.

4/5 stars

Advertisements

REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Mood Swings (1993)

ontario-bands-weekWelcome back to Ontario Bands Week, presented by BoppinsBlog,  Keeps Me Alive, Stick It In Your Ear, 1001 Albums in 10 Years, and mikeladano.com.  

Today is Part 1 of a Harem Scarem double-header!

TORONTO.

scan_20161201HAREM SCAREM – Mood Swings (1993 Warner)

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.

5/5 stars

scan_20161201-3

REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Harem Scarem (autographed)

HAREM 4_0004

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.

HAREM 6

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.

SAM_1892

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.

2.5/5 stars