Boy and Bear are an Australian band who I first heard of a few years ago through a rather good cover of Crowded House's “Fall At Your Feet” recorded for a multi-artist tribute album to Neil and Tim Finn. A friend of mine mentioned them a few weeks ago, remarking that a track he'd heard on BBC 6 Music was pretty good, so I looked them up, saw they had a new album coming out and took a blind chance on it, pre-ordering it without first hearing their début. It was a risk that paid off as “Harlequin Dream” is a thoroughly likeable, dreamy mix of Laurel Canyon style country-tinged folk rock, reminiscent of Fleet Foxes, and a light dash of Mumford and Sons style instrumentation and vocals. It has a warm, summery vibe to it, which makes it a bit of an ill-fitting record to listen to with the rain hammering down and the wind currently threatening to tear our roof off, down here on the Sussex coast, but it's actually quite nice to close my eyes, enjoy the music and have a bit of escapism from the winter blues.
The album kicks off with the excellent lead single, “Southern Sun”. The first track is a mellow but catchy affair, with a gently chugging seventies country rock feel and Fleetwood Mac-esque guitar riff complementing the laid-back, but impressive vocals. Organs, lush harmonies and a full, heavy drum sound make this a near-perfect way to begin what promises to be a quality release. “Old Town Blues” picks the tempo up a little more, featuring a rapid guitar arpeggio, but, although pleasing enough. lacks a bit of individuality and, really, could be an album track for any number of indie artists. Title track, “Harlequin Dream” is a lush, grandiose, soaring track which reminds me a little of eighties Norwegian masters of dramatic pop, A-ha (that's a good thing, by the way), and is garnished with a rather lovely saxophone solo to conclude the song. The distinctive “Three Headed Woman”, with its superb lyrics, powerful, tumbling beat and folk leanings certainly has the feel of Mumford and Sons, but has a scintillating electric guitar solo that steers it away from the whimsical, nu-folk movement; nothing on this album feels particularly pigeon-holed into any specific genre.
One of the best things on offer here is the lyrically belligerent, musically-muscular defiance of “Bridges”, whereas “A Moments Grace” is almost its polar opposite, a fragile, beauteous, aching piece of folk that positively tears at your emotions. “End Of The Line” is an up-tempo folky number that, whilst listenable, is one of the least memorable songs on this release and, sadly, “Back Down The Black” also overreaches in its ambition, not quite providing the melodic hooks and emotional pull to do the lyrics justice. However, these couple of songs are merely ordinary, rather than poor and only revealed by the the quality of the rest of what's on offer here. “Real Estate”, for example, is an upbeat but understated folk gem, “Stranger” is a skilfully written and beautifully performed hybrid of country rock and shimmering pop, certainly another highlight from this record, and the album finishes with “Arrow Flight”, a warmly romantic and subtly jaunty composition which ensures that, as the music ends, the listener is left with a smile on his or her face.
“Harlequin Dream” is an album of many strengths. Thoughtful, richly descriptive lyrics, an interesting range of eclectic tracks, superb production by the band and Wayne Connolly (You Am I, The Vines), Dave Hosking's gorgeous voice and an unashamed embrace of what could only be described as seventies AOR. I very much doubt that anybody could listen to this album once and begin to appreciate everything on offer here; it's very much a richly textured piece of work that reveals more about itself on each listen. With the first couple of playbacks, I decided that I really liked the album. By the end of the fifth listen, I had fallen for it, head over heels... or, at least, most of it. This isn't an all-time classic, but it is a very good piece of work indeed; it just about earns its five stars, but if there was an option for four and a half, I'd have opted for that. Also, although I seldom write about anything other than the music, I cannot write this review without a mention of the wonderful artwork on the album cover, rear and within the CD booklet. It's rare to see such beautiful work on a music release these days and the effort that has been made on the presentation of this album is exceptional, just part of the attention to detail present throughout the whole of “Harlequin Dream”, a very good album indeed. Now to buy their debut...!