Here’s another Blind Taste Test for you lovely people, where one of us sets another a challenge: to review an album they have never heard of before, after only one listen.
Nick has insisted I listen to Joe Gideon and the Shark‘s first album, “Harum Scarum” this time around. He told me why he set the task:
Tom is such an open-minded, thoughtful critic of music (wow, I must be in a good mood), that I thought I’d throw down a real challenge, and try and give him something to test his patience. Joe Gideon and the Shark is actually Joe Gideon and his sister Viva, who plays drums and keys to Joe’s bizarre vocal ramblings. This band manage to do something really special on Harum Scarum – a mix of moods that is very difficult to pull off. Even within the same track, music can turn from dark and sinister to hilariously witty and then suddenly poignant in the space of 30 seconds. “Kathy Ray” perhaps best exemplifies these twists and turns, and if you don’t find it scary, funny and sad all at the same time, Tom, you’ve disappointed me.
Even in our digital age, I think album artwork is important. When Kendrick Lamar revealed the striking cover of undisputed-album-of-the-decade To Pimp a Butterfly ahead of its release, you kind of knew the record was going to be something special. I have no idea if Moses Sumney’s græ will deliver on its early singles, but its arresting cover suggests that it’ll be a fascinating listen. Harum Scarum isn’t adorned by a bad image – a faded photo of Joe Gideon and Viva Seifert in the front of a battered old Saab is in itself visually intriguing – but the way the band’s title is plastered across the top and bottom as an aesthetically displeasing afterthought screams “haphazard” to me. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Nick’s description of “bizarre vocal ramblings” that are “scary, funny and sad” suggests that I’m not going to be in for a refined and polished musical suite.
I press play to see if these two are indeed going to shout in my face or steadily ease me in. On this fragile early January afternoon, I’m hoping for the latter – and mercifully the title track kicks off with an earworm of a bassline and an enjoyable rock tune. It’s a solid enough start. Things kick up a gear with second track “Civilisation” though. Nick highlighted the vocal delivery in his intro, and Gideon’s spoken word deadpan – accompanied by Seifert’s drums – really appeal to my instincts. If there’s a way to my good side, it’s through weird anecdotes about quitting at Debenhams on your first day because you’re tired of selling another man’s shoes.
I’m getting Ian Curtis inflections from Gideon’s voice when he exclaims “hit the road” in third track ‘Dol’, but otherwise the song comes and goes without having any real impact on first listen. The same can’t be said for the next spoken word number, “Kathy Ray”, however. Nick pulled this one out in his intro as a highlight, and I can instantly see why. Shifting the tempo down a notch, the band take their time to build another abstract story over six and a half minutes, and at least for the first half it’s very compelling.
“Johan Was a Painter and Arsonist” is a great title without a song to go with it, and its five-and-a-half minutes are the first ones that drag on the record so far. But once again, this lull gives way to another spoken word gem, “Hide and Seek”. It’s here that I really realise what Nick means about the tone. Theatrical and comedic, the narrator describes a bitter childhood grudge with an adult’s petulance. The farcical contrast makes the song entertaining in its ridiculousness.
It’s safe to say that I’ve found the spoken word elements much more captivating than the conventional rock songs over the first two thirds of Harum Scarum. The issue I’ve found however, is that even on the highlights, Gideon tends to set up an intriguing narrative in the first half of the track that doesn’t really go anywhere. On both “Kathy Ray” and “Hide and Seek” for instance, the amusing first halves just give way to a repetitive chorus that disappointingly sees the songs fade out rather than come to a narrative conclusion.
Gideon’s vocals channel Nick Cave’s at times on “True Nature”, and I’ll take this moment to say, I like his voice. Its commanding tone helps to propel each song forward and therefore makes some of the straight-faced narration more affecting – whether it’s supposed to be funny or serious. Its ability to be versatile with its emotional impact is highlighted on penultimate track “Anything You Love That Much You Will See Again”, the most straight-up heartfelt moment so far. Driven by Seifert’s piano melody, it highlights the impressive way in which they shift tone effectively. It’s not easy to mix humour and sincerity – and it reminds me of something that one of my modern-day favourites, Father John Misty, does particularly well.
And for my criticism of the incomplete song structures earlier on, it ends with the most solidly constructed song on the record, ‘Pale Blue Dot’. Accompanied by serene strings, it’s an unexpectedly rather beautiful end to the album. Without really noticing, over the last couple of songs, they’ve dismantled my expectations with a couple of considered pieces about the meaning of life. So, Nick, I’ll give you ‘witty’ and ‘poignant’ – and I’ll tell you that I found plenty to like on my first listen of Joe Gideon and the Shark’s Harum Scarum.
Maybe you shouldn’t always judge an album by its cover.
Words by Tom Burrows.