PILGRIM'S PROGRESS - Harem Scarem (Aztec Music)
Melbourne band Harem Scarem hold a special place in their fans' memory banks, as much for the fact that they could mix it with blues crowds or inner-city underground hipsters as for not making it big.
It's a truism that bands poised on the cusp of commercial acceptance that pull back before they tip over have a much more abiding place in Australian hearts than those who break-through and sell records. This 16-track compilation, reprising their 1986 "Pligrim's Progress" album plus a generous serve of live, tribute and EP tracks, shows they were indeed worth the fuss.
Harem Scarem had a head start in the form of the Marshall brothers, Chris (richly beefy baritone vocals) and Charlie (Stonesy rhythm guitar). When they were grafted to a superb engine room (Glen Sheldon on bass and Peter Jones on drums) with the dual pronged attack of lead guitarist Barry Palmer and supercharged jew's harp/presence Chris Wilson up front, it was a rare combo that was probably more accepted in its hometown than anywhere further afield.
Chris Wilson broke up the band not far down the track, and although he returned three years later with another LP on Citadel ("Lo And Behold".) "Pligrim's Progress" is generally held to be the best of the recordings from a band that got away.
If you want to appreciate what was great about Harem Scarem then set the track selector to the second cut,"Miracle Mile". Guest player Conway Savage lays down some snaking piano and Chris Wilson vamps it up with some monstrously great harp on this airy but substantial song. Before you know it, Chris Marshall's powerful vocal has picked it all up and carries it off. Yes, there is an echo of Chain (one of the Matt Taylor line-ups.)
Now, let track three creep up.
It's a cover of Iggy and the Stooges' "Open Up And Bleed", not rendered with the same air of desperation as the original, granted - and weren't you just so fucking cool if you knew this one back in the mid-'80s, 'cos it was off a bootleg - but still murderously good. It's all in the way Harem Scarem push it along in its groove rather than take the obvious route that 98 percent of half-baked acolytes would have and hammer it into submission with some imaginary and no doubt ill-perceived take on junkie self-hate.
It's not all marvelous - there are a handful of dirgey cuts I could do without - but the planets were as close to aligned as they get for most records when this line-up recorded.
The Dingoes comparison you might read elsewhere is right on the money, only I prefer these guys.
It wouldn't be an Aztec package without bonuses. There are a couple of live tracks that hold up well, plus an EP title track ("Dogman") from an earlier line-up that shows the band was still to carve out an identity but was interesting enough to merit a special listen.
Another lost gem, re-done the right way. Listen and remember, or tune in and be surprised. - The Barman
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