Alex Izenberg has a playlist called “Death”, which from a cursory glance immediately hints at the sort of eclectic variety of influences that have been lodestones for his music. The lilting harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel give way to classic Pink Floyd, while later there’s a giddy shift from the slow blues of Ella Fitzgerald into hard, distorted guitars courtesy of Queens Of The Stone Age.
Cynicisms cast aside, this playlist makes listening to new album Harlequin, which was five years in the making, a more intriguing experience. Personally I’d recommend listening to the album, then the playlist, and then the album again. Does Izenberg successfully draw upon these chalk-and-cheese influences? To an extent, of course, that’s a matter of subjective interpretation.
As “The Farm” opens to shrill, tension-inducing strings, the high vocals immediately stamp a mark on the music. For me, an instinctive reaction was to think of it as a blend of two other bands: Peter Bjorn and John and Miike Snow.
That’s not a similarity to stick by though, because Izenberg definitely seems determined to establish his niche. Like many of the tracks on Harlequin, “The Farm” is quite short and sweet, but a strong opener nonetheless. It builds a strong sense of anticipation as under the melancholy strings slow, ponderous timpani add a sense of drama to the mysterious words: “After dark the wind it blows”. Ambient samples and sounds at the end draw us in further.
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Clocking in as one of the slightly longer tracks on the album, “Grace” is a pensive, wistful tune that has highs and lows. Here there’s the first example of some of Izenberg’s distinctive piano playing a bittersweet melody that rises while the strings swell again in the background. Some of the lyrics don’t quite feel as potent as perhaps they did for Izenberg – “The winter is long/the summer is strong” being an example. There’s also a peculiar decision to introduce a vocoder-type effect which unfortunately jars with the rest of the song, and at times the strings threaten to overpower when it feels as though the more minimalist approach should have been maintained.
It’s into full-on jerky baroque mode on “Libra”. The timpani are back, but this time marching the track into a driving pace in unison with the frantic, urgent strings. Here some of the more eccentric elements are kept in check, and it works well. Although the lyrics are again a bit abstruse, the alternating pace of this song combined with its short-and-sweet nature play to its favour.
The album slows on “Archer”, as Izenberg resorts to the same cadence in his singing as he has in previous tracks on the album. A slow, waltzy tune, it gambles with a dissonant, chaotic crescendo towards its finale that doesn’t really work. What sounds like a deliberate use of overdriven distortion along with a few other elements might actually have you tapping the skip button.
Fortunately, the album finds its second wind on “Hot Is The Fire”. With renewed vigour Izenberg introduces a tribal, Oriental-sounding flute, bluesy guitar riffs, and just the right dash of electronica to spice it up. Also, there’s a very clever use of a popping sound (imagine the cork firing out of a champagne bottle while you desperately hope it doesn’t hit anything valuable/a relative), a subtle touch but one that you pick up on and appreciate with repeat listening. As you can tell there’s more use of temperature as a gauge of human relationships, but it works well on this tune – perhaps because there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on instrumentally, the vocals are something you don’t fixate on as much.
The Paul Simon influence shows on “Changes”, as it opens like many before it on the album in a very stripped-back fashion, two plucked guitars playing as Izenberg croons “Give me something to remind me of you”. Again the sweeping, warped vocals come in the chorus, but they do work well against a basic drum beat with sharp snare accents.
The standout track on this album is one of its singles, “To Move On”. Leaping acrobatically from sombre piano chords to a catchy upbeat number, it’s a straight-up chamber pop song of separation. “Sleeping all of the day/waking up in a haze” sets out what it’s dealing with straight away, but its enjoyable unpredictability makes it memorable. Again, there’s less of the dabbling in quixotic sounds, except for some brass punctuation, quick stabbing notes that inject some liveliness into the chorus. Definitely its defining number, this is the sort of perfect blend that works best on the album.
After the mediocre fugue of “A Bird Came Down”, we move straight into the plaintive longing of “The Moon”. The eponymous rock “means nothing when you’re not around”, sings Izenberg, and overall it’s quite a sweet sentiment. There are no hidden surprises waiting to explode into life and disrupt the song, and for all its subdued tone it’s a fine emotional number.
It takes almost the whole album for our artist to dub one of his tracks as a waltz, as it’s clearly a musical style that he favours. Unfortunately by this time his tracks are becoming ever so slightly predictable – yes, it starts simple, with just him singing and a guitar, and when the rest of the ensemble joins in it becomes bold, orchestral and theatrical, with a hint of turmoil.
However, “People” is the album’s strong finisher. Izenberg’s piano melody becomes smooth and rolling, with less of the pronounced polka/waltz style, and it’s backed by an uncomplicated bass and drum rhythm. Lyrically it’s a light contemplation on societies, which makes a refreshing change from the primarily romance-orientated material on the rest of the record.
Overall, Harlequin is an album that does perhaps try to cram in too many influences at one time on certain tracks. It shines when it allows the strongest parts to really breathe and be appreciated in their own right, without trying to show what else can be piled on. Alex Izenberg has offered a lot of tasters as to what he could do superbly, provided he strikes the right balance.