The Harlequin EP
La Scala front man Balthazar de Ley is a man with iron lungs and a husky baritone that eagerly plumbs the same depths as a Jarvis Cocker, for instance, over the straight rock thing mined in previous bands Menthol and Hum. He founded this outfit of gypsy Bad Seeds enthusiasts out of the wreckage and the aesthetic improvement is pretty fucking palpable. A lot of groups like to try on the “cabaret” and “exotica” (in this case, I’d put a pin in the map around Eastern Europe and maybe, geez, some island in the Mediterranean) tropes as a lark, like how a frat boy in a thrift store tries on a “wacky” seventies shirt and is just blown away by how kerr-azy it is. However, La Scala has a heartening commitment to their sound and vision. Now, you’d think with these compliments I’m throwing around I’d dig the first two numbers, right? Not so much. “Bon Vivant” and “Parallel Lives” are just dog average romps. (The disco timing on the second track does deserve an approving nod, as does the Bowie lyric swipe in the chorus.)
It’s on the third number, “Harlequin,” that this album EXPLODES into a red-wine as blood dripping down the mouth, poison rings being emptied into drinks, and cigarette holder kind of place. Over one of those pounding, thrusting, (shall we say “fucking”) beats that the Jesus Lizard used to excel in and with noir-guitar riffery and noises, La Scala weaves a tale of Agatha Christie-meets-Scarlet Pimpernel mystery and intrigue. Check out the guitar solo that is just sex itself and listen closely to the lyric where the mysterious harlequin describes himself as “odd boots/ mod suit/ brown hair/ black mask” — sounds like a winner to me. This is the song for me. “Draculina” (another awesome song title) is more in the right direction with that rudimentary surf beat (you know the one the Mary Chain uses), and it builds to an epic of reverb-ed exotic guitar, Spanish percussion flourishes and Balthazar’s voice rising to a dramatic baritone cry of “Draculina revealed!” The final number “Love! Love! Love!” is nowhere near as strong as “Draculina” and “Harlequin” (which is an almost unfair standard), but it throws good angular shapes.
This release is packaged both as a record and a CD included. I know which one this posed and poised album was meant to be played on. The band looks sharp too, just putting it out there. Very grown-up and curious stuff; I like how the boundaries of their songs don’t begin and end in Chicago’s hipster bars.