Monday, October 17, 2005
New York and Kansas don't necessarily have a lot in common. One state is home to the bustling financial and cultural capital of America, while the other is mostly made up of small towns, livestock and open spaces. "The Wild Farewell" is The Harvey Girls' willfully schizophrenic attempt to musically reconcile the two locales.
The Harvey Girls are Hiram Lucke and Melissa Rodenbeek, a local husband/wife team named after the waitresses who served travelers on the railways in the American West. I doubt trains back then had much in the way of sound systems, but it's not hard to imagine barreling across the plains with the sun streaming into the passenger car while "The Wild Farewell" plays overhead.
This is especially true of the first few songs, which have an airy, dreamy texture that would be at home on the German pop/electronic label Morr Music. The third song, "Practically," is an especially energetic number, with a sturdy, Yo-La-Tengo-ish bassline and female vocals that are alternately smooth and shouted.
The next four songs take a detour into some unexpected musical realms. With its ominous horn blasts and keyboard noises, the next song, "Your Evil Man," sounds like the soundtrack to a lost Super Mario Brothers level. Meanwhile, "Hazy Heat," which showcases the scratching talents of DJ Sku, has enough bounce and flavor to be the next big Coca-Cola commercial.
The album's standout track is "Girls Sing," which begins with an almost identical chord progression to the Ronettes '60s classic, "Be My Baby." The vocals on the track are outstanding, and the instrumentation gives an already catching song a truly stirring feel. "Stone Girl" doesn't let up one bit, and by the time almost seven-minute long "Brooklyn Train" rolls around, you'll be ready to settle in for a nice, melodic nap.
The odd thing is, "The Wild Farewell" is only half-over. The section titled "New York 1970-1983" ends with song 10, and the "Kansas 1983-2003" continues to the album's finale at track 19. Though the second side is not an entirely acoustic affair, the songs here tend to be as sparse and folky as the rest of the album is heady and experimental. All of the acoustic songs on "The Wild Farewell" are an accomplishment in their own right, but would be much better off on a separate EP rather than stretching the album to its current near-eternal length of almost 75 minutes.
My main complaint with the album is how hard it is to understand the vocals. You'd think that a band with such unique song titles would want to be understood, but it's difficult to pick out more than a phrase here and there. The female vocals generally do a nice job of soaring to the top of the mix, but at times the lower, multi-tracked vocals sound dull and even off-key.
Still, when the album closes with "The Word Possibility," a return to the multi-textured aura of the first few songs, it's clear the Harvey Girls have accomplished something special. Thanks to the aid of 11 guest musicians (the most interestingly named being "Mushi Mushi Gila Monster," who contributed percussive cat voice on track 19), the Harvey Girls have created an album full of songs with heart.