Harlem Shakes as we know it were born in 2006, after an earlier incarnation of the band went to college and went nuts. Lexy still sings lead, and Brent still plays the drums (and drum machine), but now Kendrick plays keyboards, Jose plays bass, and Todd plays guitar. Everyone sings. Harlem Shakes have toured with Deerhoof, Vampire Weekend, and Beirut, and opened for Wire, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Arctic Monkeys, and various other famous bands with animal names. Burning Birthdays, the band's self-released debut EP, came out in 2007 to wide acclaim, earning generous praise from Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, SPIN, AllMusic, Stylus, The Village Voice, and the blogs. Pitchfork complimented their "frenetic clip of hooks," and sometime Magnetic Field-er LD Beghtol of The Voice called them "lethally charming" and one of "the Best of New York." The band is sure that all this good luck must come at some kind of lurking, damning cost.
After extensive touring and a bit of schooling, the band got back together with Chris Zane (Les Savy Fav, The Walkmen, Passion Pit, White Rabbits) to record their first full-length album, Technicolor Health. The result is one of the most quietly ambitious pop albums in ages. Much like Blur fused English pop traditions and contemporary sonics to forge Brit Pop, Harlem Shakes meld the Great American Songbook with unmistakably contemporary textures, creating what one might call "Am Pop." Influences as disparate as the Band, Randy Newman, Carlos Santana and Spank Rock inform the soundscapes, but the vibe is too coherent to be called eclectic. Technicolor Health invokes the synthesized Latin percussion that plays outside the band's apartments every night as they're trying to fall asleep, and the classic rock radio they listen to with hilarious regularity. These are social songs: instruments meander, trade off lines, and counter each other's rhythms and melodies, but ultimately they come together again on the chorus, or in an ecstatic outro or bridge, for a singalong family dinner. Harlem Shakes also have an unapologetically literary lilt; writers like Leonard Michaels, Wislawa Szymborska, and David Berman echo in Lexy's lyrics.
Technicolor Health was made after and during some tough times (involving serious sickness) for the band. The record captures the weary, hopeful, and sometimes triumphal vibe of that period in their lives. Above all, the album is about surviving abject shittiness. But it's also about what new-wave bands and new-wave revival bands call, "modern life," as lived by five thoughtful men in their early and mid-twenties during a weird, sometimes miserable, mostly thrilling historical moment. Harlem Shakes have been obsessed by pop music their whole lives, and after all the reiterations, they still have great faith in its power to make you and them feel a little better about things, and to say something vital, and God willing, maybe even enduring.