Words by Ricky
Our city has a mixed bag of musicians considered by many as “Pittsburgh institutions.” Unfortunately for every charmer (Donnie Iris) or force of nature (Don Caballero), there’s a band that shits on everything—like the Clarks (the guys who remind us that “life is all about the ride” every other goddamn commercial break). Then there’s The Harlan Twins (cue the off-stage applause). Despite being friends, I still consider them one of the best live bands our city offers and would demand them on any mixtape of Pittsburgh bands who happen to sound like, well, Pittsburgh.
Drunken memories from my first Harlan Twins show years ago are a bit hazy, but a few come to mind: I (for whatever reason) noticed that (singer/guitarist) Carrie Battle and I owned identical pair of shoes (color and everything); I delighted in drummer Neal Kling’s 40-minute contagious smile while playing (still probably the happiest drummer I’ve ever seen); and I ended the night thinking, “Holy shit that rocked. SO. HARD. BLLARRGH” (that last bit was either me leaving the venue speechless or me throwing up from all the partying). With too many of my favorite Pittsburgh bands calling it quits in 2011/2012 (Boca Chica, Hot Garbage, Kim Phuc, The Slow Reel, Passengers, Holy Daze, Hunted Creatures, and Ash Dinosaur come to mind), it’s reassuring that James (Hart) and Carrie solider on no matter how many guitars (bring back the transparent Flying-V!!) or bass players they plow through.
I’ll admit that my jaw didn’t completely drop with the band’s self-titled album a few years ago. Of course the songs were tops, but despite spot-on playing, the recording didn’t capture their live energy (and some flatly mixed post-production didn’t help either). While Old Familiar doesn’t try to duplicate a live Harlan Twins experience either (MAYBE a live album could accomplish that), it’s instead an excellent glimpse of a band perfecting songs in a studio setting.
CCR, Neil Young/Crazy Horse, The Youngbloods, and a more rockin’ Van Morrison often spring to mind when hyping the ‘Twins to friends, and those influences pop up throughout the new album—with a few other surprises (which I’ll get to in a bit). Lineup-wise the ‘Twins aren’t identical to the last album either. Greg DeCarolis on keys and drummer Braden Faisant (who also shoots some smiles from behind the drum set) joined the crew a year or two ago, respectively. The Slow Reel’s Madison Stubblefield and Rob Collier added their suave bass chops to the band the past year or so, too. Too much member-switching can often ruin a fine band, but that’s definitely not the case with these guys … and that brings us to the new album.
So yeah, unless you were offended by my Clarks comment earlier, chances are you’ll dig Old Familiar. Live staple “These are the Days” starts things off like a folksier “Solsbury Hill.” Then the album rolls into the smooth sounds of the 70s with James’ “Reservoir” and the wild stomp of Carrie’s “Mama Jo.” “Quiet Little Final” takes a simple high school garage-rock riff and twirls it through two minutes of classy rock n’ roll. Though the organ-heavy atmospherics during “Easy Lines”’ intro are a bit too Doors-y for me (that and the guitars aren’t high enough in the mix when things eventually get crazy), James’ voice is excitingly haunting. “It Helps,” the album’s most-heartbreaking 3 minutes, is (more or less) an emo song written for aging folk rockers, and should creep up on many “Lonely Drunken Night” Songza playlists. I’ll refrain from calling it the album’s “best,” since immediately afterwards we’re showered with a waterfall of guitar taps that signal the start of “Sailors Life.” With a Cat Stevens (but more spunky)-like groove, soulful vocal yelps, and a far traveling bass line, it’s possibly the pinnacle Harlan song. Finally, I couldn’t think of a better way of ending this LP than with the intensity of “Canine Teeth”—yet another song that showcases one of the most soulful singers in Pittsburgh.
We’re all familiar with the oddly-timed folk revival of the past five or so years, but few bands do it with as much charm as The Harlan Twins—just look at last week’s Pittsburgh City Paper cover for proof of that. Their album release shindig this week at Belvedere’s will be the grand party this LP deserves. The band’s a Pittsburgh institution that still causes me to leave shows at the end of the night either speechless or vomiting … we’ll see which happens this Saturday.
I’m with you, Ricky. Speechless or vomiting, or speechless from vomiting. You can always expect the best at a Harlan Twins show. So get your butts out to Belvedere’s on Friday, September 7th! OutsideInside and Delicious Pastries are also playing, and Harlan Twins will rock the house and have some vinyl and mp3 downloads for sale. Only $5 at the door, so no fucking excuses! More info here on Facebook.