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Har Mar Superstar
Bye Bye 17 Nick Reed , May 1st, 2013 09:07

"Is this guy for real?" "What exactly is his problem?" "Why does he have to be naked?" - all valid questions upon one's first exposure to Har Mar Superstar. After his 2000 debut, Har Mar catapulted to international semi-fame with the 2002 album You Can Feel Me, complete with a rather bizarre appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel show where he did "Power Lunch" and Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke". If he wasn't breakdancing in a thong throughout much of the performance, your first thought might have been, "he does Stevie pretty well". Alas, even the debut of "Strawberry Fields Forever" would have been ruined if John Lennon was breakdancing in a thong the whole time. It's just a lot harder to get your point across if you're not wearing clothes.

Still, Har Mar's first three albums were at least entertaining, as he does happen to have a good voice and certainly knows his way around a pop hook - all that the uncalled-for sexual overaggression is just a bonus! 2009's Dark Touches was an attempt to ditch the novelty label and focus on the songs; he already scored songwriting credits for J. Lo and Kelly Osbourne, and 'Tall Boy' was originally written for Britney Spears, who wound up rejecting it (her loss, by the way). But his giant stab at legitimacy comes here, with Bye Bye 17, a refreshingly sincere tribute to the soul and funk greats of the past. How sincere? In addition to the retro-styled amusing/freakish album cover (a Nancy Sit reference! What the!?), the music contained within is very much rooted in 60s traditions, right down to the grainy, echo-laden production. In other words, this is less a tribute to 60s soul than it is a reproduction of that sound; it sounds like something that's been hiding in a basement for 40 years.

If you're wondering if Har Mar Superstar can really sell this kind of sound, then you haven't been listening to enough Har Mar Superstar. Backed with a funky drummer and a loud brass section, it appears that Har Mar finally found a way to air out his voice and show off his talent. The opener 'Lady, You Shot Me' (allegedly Sam Cooke's last words) makes it clear - it evolves from a sad soul-crooner to a overconfident strut, and is easily the most nuanced thing we've ever heard from him so far. But it keeps coming - 'Prisoner' is a full-on tribute to the harpsichord funk of Stevie Wonder, and it's just as incredible. The heartbreaking doo-wop slow jam 'Everywhere I'm Local', the incessantly catchy 'Restless Leg', and the magical, introspective '12:12' follow; it's one knockout after another.

By this time, it's clear that this is easily Har Mar's best album. Sure, the lyrics are still hamfisted, but they're not as bad as they were in the past - his biggest crime is rhyming "knowledge" with "college" like everyone else did back the day. It's refreshing to know that Har Mar can now write a song about say, not being all that into S&M ('Don't Make Me Hit You') without the sexual overtones taking over. Instead, the focus is mostly on the tight, uncharacteristically dense arrangements, the incredible amount of control that Har Mar has over the band, and of course the vocals themselves, which absolutely soar.

In the past, the debate about Har Mar was usually about whether or not he was a groanworthy novelty act or some kind of Neil Hamburger-esque secret genius. Bye Bye 17 offers a third option - he was a talented R&B singer and songwriter all along who just happened to be fully aware of how ridiculous the genre can be. Sure, he usually takes the overt sexuality a lot further than his contemporaries, but when you resemble Ron Jeremy more than Justin Timblerlake, you just have to work a lot harder at it. And with his latest album, Har Mar has proven that he's willing to work harder than just about anyone in the business. There are a few questionable decisions here and there - one may wonder whether or not the retro-styled production was really necessary, and the album clocks in short at just under 30 minutes (if nothing else, it's at least preferable to Timberlake's whale of an album that runs over 40 minutes longer than this, despite featuring just as many songs). But the only legitimate complaint I can muster is that those who start here may be disappointed or confused upon investigating Har Mar's back catalogue. There are a few similarities, but this is really more Sam Cooke or Otis Redding than it is the Har Mar of old. If he keeps this up, he may just become the R&B sexbomb powerhouse he's always presented himself as being.