When Harlem Shakes’ Technicolor Health arrived in 2009, it felt like it should’ve been the start of something—the next generation of jittery New York indie rock, perhaps, or at least a year-end list shoe-in. Instead, the band got passing reviews and imploded, leaving guitarist Todd Goldstein alone with his old solo project, ARMS. One EP and two rounds of CMJ/SXSW festival runs later, the band has emerged as a full-fledged four-piece with the self-released Summer Skills, an exuberant effort with masterful musicianship and clever, knotty lyrics.
Goldstein’s new players are the record’s key ingredient: Summer Skills’ songs are driven by the assured savvy of drummer Tlacael Esparza, whose thoughtful rhythms offer primal force without feeling primitive. On “Dog Days,” he’s a whirlwind of fills and cymbal crashes; on “Curtains,” he offers jazz balladry in slow motion. It’s hard to imagine any element of the album feeling more attended to, from the loose harmonies that open “Curtains” to the luminous synthesizers that give a radioactive glow to “Three Mile Island.” Goldstein’s cerebral-sensitive vocals, a tenor which lands somewhere between Interpol’s Paul Banks and The Shins’ James Mercer, are cool without being dispassionate, the right fit for songs that don’t mistake bombast for seriousness.
Summer Skills, like so many records, chronicles the death of a relationship, though it’s as much a meditation on the perils of its titular season. “Dog Days” depicts its protagonist sore and weary of “dead afternoons” and “the cruel bite of the sunlight,” while “High Heels” finds him “always feeling off this time of year.” The colder, darker months feed Goldstein’s imagination, but Summer Skills could light up a room any day of the year.