Strangers marks the third full-length in four years from prolific British songster Ed Harcourt (four if you count the 2003 re-release of his early EP Maplewood), a spasmodic musical soul who isn’t afraid to draw from an amalgam of otherwise unrelated influences. Harcourt, now 27, was rumored to have a backlog of over 300 songs by the time he put his debut, Here Be Monsters, to tape in 2001. In defining his aesthetic motivation, he has name-dropped the likes of everyone from jazz legend Chet Baker and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (of “I Put A Spell On You” fame) to acutely modern acts like the Beastie Boys, Perry Farrell and At The Drive-In. While all of his influences may not be promptly apparent, Harcourt’s brand of tuneful, piano-based pop is indeed a savory musical curry, full of spunk and wildly varying concepts that somehow coalesce into a truly captivating listen.
In actuality, the best approximation of Harcourt’s sound would be that of Badly Drawn Boy, crossed with the more august melodic moments of The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft (for those of us naïve folks who believe that Ashcroft has indeed had moments where he was not august), with a voice that can’t help but remind you of Jeff Buckley in spots. The once-important but now going-out-with-a-fuss indie legends R.E.M., whose tastes seem to hold more weight than their music these days, thought highly enough of him to take him out on tour with them last year. Anyone who heard Ron Sexsmith’s last album, Retriever, got a dollop of Harcourt’s piano stylings on “From Now On,” imbuing the song with a vivacity that had been absent from most of Sexsmith’s previous work. Those who were paying attention could have taken it as a nod to the material present on what wound up being Strangers, and they wouldn’t have been too far off. And golly, it’s even got a kazoo.
The album-opening “The Storm Is Coming” lives up to its title, rolling out with an atonal guitar squall and arena-rock beat, joined midstream by Harcourt’s piano and a vindictive chorus (“The storm is coming / It’s gonna make a beautiful sound / I hope it turns your life upside down…”). In contrast to his multi-dimensional orchestrations, Harcourt’s lyrics are pleasantly direct and heart-on-the-sleeve, which he goes as far as to tell you himself in “This One’s For You.” “Born In The ’70s” is a cheeky, driving number that finds him scorning his traditionalist elders. He volleys deftly from tempo to tempo and melody to melody; from the Verveian bombast of “Let Love Not Weigh Me Down,” he drops off quickly to the frail emoting of “Something To Live For” and “The Trapdoor.”
The always-humble Noel Gallagher mentioned in a rare felicitous moment that he wished he’d written “This One’s For You,” which is no less than high praise from a now-descended Britpop deity who actually had an entire genre named after him. The Gallagher name might be innately associated with a certain degree of twatness, but no one’s second-guessing Noel’s musical pedigree. Noel might even enjoy the simple irony in naming a song “Loneliness” and then playing it as an uptempo, major-key pop song.
If the Keane album can catch fire in America for reasons I have yet to discern (besides it being warm, cuddly and completely inert, which while being enough for many people, is SO not rock), there’s no reason to believe that Harcourt can’t get some steam behind a tune like “The Storm Is Coming” or “Born In The ’70s.” The only thing that might hold Harcourt back in the States is that we don’t take too well anymore to radicals or free-thinkers, of which he is both. But make no mistake about it; there are two kinds of pragmatists: Bad pragmatists (I’m looking at you, Craig Nicholls) and good pragmatists. Ed Harcourt is safely in the company of the latter.