Alex Izenberg: Harlequin

Native Californian, Alex Izenberg, is something of a cultural byproduct. While the rumor mill claims he’s a very talented musician, paired with a very talented producer, working on some very interesting and masterful works –more or less his music is really just a personification of the last half-century in American hits. To be clear, Alex Izenberg is a powerfully talented musician with some serious skills, but based on his big debut, Harlequin, leaves him as far as safe –with not too much refreshing going on.

Izenberg’s Harlequin is a Circus’ Freak Show –starring an all new cast of pop musicians. In each track, it’s as if Izenberg adopts a new persona and lays out a déjà vu inspiring soundscape. At times, it’s difficult to ignore and incredibly disappointing –the majority of Izenberg’s tricks are predictable –really just beating a dead horse past any sense of reason. Although, if you get past the elephant in the room and begin to look at the intricacies, Izenberg’s musicianship manifests quickly. Even if he is at times generic –he’s generic with such variety and such a strong degree of quality that it’s forgivable. Pardon the mistakes and Harlequin’s silver lining stands on its own as a fantastic.

Harlequin begins atmospheric and awe-some. “The Farm,” is a soundscape in every sense of the term. The vocals create a breathy ambience –something that ends up something of a trademark. The strings drive the song forward and create a sense of continuity. Each second produces its own little movement, various instruments invade your auditory imagination and begin to forge their own world –and the strings remain constantly adding a looming gloom. The song falls apart to a series of industrial-urban soundclips –an unnatural finish for an opener but a strong close for the song overall.

The second track rolls in a bit unnervingly. “Grace” is radically different from track one  –featuring a melancholic piano line and vocals that reach out into something more soulful or blues. It’s a shake up and the first major contrast. The lyrics felt a bit base, needing more depth, “The winter is long. The summer, is strong.” It’s a line that leaves so much to be desired. At the very least, it’s here that the album also inspires more curiosity. Upon first listen, it sounds as if Izenberg is violently swinging the pendulum –and it builds from here. The third track, “Libra,” features powerful strings again, more carefully chosen instrumental lines that add sensational layers of texture, and vocals that seems to fit Izenberg’s talents a bit better. The album showcases his talents excellently but nothing felt too inspired yet. At the close of track number four, I stumbled upon some ‘Sung Tongs’ sort of clamor and at track five I was both pleasantly surprised and disgusted by the indie pop jam Harlequin was trying to sell me on.

It doesn’t take long to see that, while a fantastic musician, Izernberg has this terrible tendency to not venture too far from what’s safe. “Hot Is The Fire,” was the second time (since the beginning of the album) that I really fell for Harlequin. Simultaneously, I became annoyed that such a phenomenal musician was frankly wasting his prolific ability on… this. “Hot Is The Fire,” features a slew of groovy guitars, poppy backing melodies, and some chilled out vocals; packaged in a box labelled, “Indie Music: 2010.” It’s an awkward familiarness –maybe Peter, Bjorn, & John? The problem is, this is a fantastic track, and if it were an indie album, I’d declare it the best. But Izenberg demonstrates he’s so capable of creating such a mix that I’m not sure where it falls in the grand scheme of things. It’s just Izenberg showing off again –and for what point?

At times, Harlequin is Maroon 5, other times it’s Wild Beasts, perhaps a hint of The Beatles, sometimes, it’s The Lumineers –and the majority of the time, it’s Alex Izenberg playing tricks on you. Finding stability in such a strangely mixed, perfectly organized, and eerily familiar album is difficult. That said, your enjoyment of Harlequin is almost certainly going to be based on your willingness to accept pop re-hashes. You’ve heard it all before, but you’ve never heard it played so eloquently. The second half of the album plays out like much the first, with a slew of intriguing tunes. Perhaps the most interesting, are also some of the best, and the very worst of Harlequin.

“To Move On,” begins with Izenberg’s falsetto and powers through with his attempt at pretending to be Gavin Degraw –this isn’t Vh1 and it isn’t 2005. The song features this awkward back and forth between a poppy piano line and a more sentimental, downtrodden voice from Izenberg. Frankly, he should have stuck with the latter because the poppier Izenberg gets, the more embarrassing it can get. Regardless, the instrumentality holds up and frankly Izenberg’s musicianship blows the originals out of the water. Demonstrating his variability more; two tracks later, the artist wrapped me back in. “The Moon,” brings the album back into seemingly comfortable territory. It’s guitar backed, broken hearted love song. Maybe it’s my soft spot for Jason Molina-types, but Izenberg invests in his strongest sense of a solemn emotion and executes it perfectly. Then, just to shake it up one more time, Izenberg finishes Harlequin off with a political line. “People,” is ridiculous, the chorus being, “You don’t care about the country, they just care about the good times.” It’s an awkward closer and while it may be a good venting session –I wish it were something more.

That’s the problem with Harlequin, in remaining safe and base, Izenberg continually misses his opportunity to do something truly special. For a debut, Harlequin is impressive and demonstrates a prolific musicianship with a variety of enjoyable tracks. At the same time, Alex Izenberg really needs to explore and take a few chances. At the very least, Harlequin will bring Izenberg under the radar of many music nerds –but for now, you won’t be missing much to skip this one.

Rating: 7.0/10

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