Wednesday, 21 November 2007

The Harlem Experiment

(my first) Album Review for

the harlem experiment (***)

The Harlem Experiment is the third in Ropeadope's "experiment" series of albums, which each set out to explore the life and culture of the chosen city, as interpreted by local musicians. After Philadelphia and Detroit comes Harlem, which to my knowledge is a large neighbourhood of New York City rather than a city itself; but with a rich enough cultural and musical history to be deserving of such a tribute anyway. Considering that cultural heritage it should come as no surprise that this is a record that uses Latin jazz, funk and hip-hop to tell Harlem's story; unfortunately it never comes close to matching any of the better Latin jazz and funk records that have come from Harlem already, so is of little appeal to anyone with limited interest in Harlem generally.

On the surface The Harlem Experiment is a finely-executed concept album. There are no off-topic distractions – no tales of Bronx life or excursions to Central Park – and each song delivers something in the way of Harlem flavour. The 15-track album includes sampled radio debates on civil rights, descriptive monologues of specific scenes, and instrumental tracks that succeed in painting pictures: of meandering street life, families hanging out on the stoop, or friends chilling in a cafĂ©. In other words, these instrumentals comprise slow jazzy grooves that don't really want to go anywhere. There are two tracks that stand-out as highlights: James Hunter presents a live and rather lo-fi version of "Rose In Spanish Harlem" that has charm in abundance, and the closing track "Walking Through Harlem" features hypnotic guitar lines and impassioned vocals from Olu Dara.

However, the biggest misstep comes halfway through, when we get an anaemic cover of Jimmy Castor's funk classic "It's Just Begun" after an impressive monologue explaining that Harlem's future is brighter than it's past. The greatest thing about the original was its sheer driving force, but this version replaces that with a meek shuffle and aimless noodling sprinkled over the top. It also features horribly dated synths, the kind of synths that a low-budget 70s sci-fi series might employ to denote travelling forward in time to the mysterious Y2K. I don't think that's the kind of retro-referencing futurism the interlude was intending to relate to. Another mistake is "Lil' Bit", a 4-minute story of a local girl who's a wannabe rapper, which is far too long to justify more than one listen.

Of course, thanks to the skip button (and now the delete button), a couple of poor tracks can be excised from any album at the listeners discretion. But even with those two lead weights dropped, The Harlem Experiment still fails to gain much height. "One For Malcolm" begins with an empowering Malcolm X speech, over which a solo trumpeter squawks and squeals as if to suggest disquiet or protest. I want it to burst open and thrust forward into a great cacophonous freak-out, but it never does: it continues to squeal, calms down, floats around, and then fades away. That's not how I remember Eddie Palmieri doing things, and that demonstrates the main let-down of The Harlem Experiment.

If you don't own the best recordings by Palmieri, Ray Barretto and the other NuYoricans already, they deserve prioritisation over this; if you do, this is going to strike you as inferior anyway. The Harlem Experiment is by no means a bad record, but considering the vast volume of albums furiously fighting each other for your precious listening time, it's just not quite good enough to warrant special recommendation.

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