The Harlan Twins evoke a time before "Southern rock" was a pejorative or even a viable musical term, when rock 'n' roll backbeats converged with the spirit of tent revivals. While the Allman-esque twang in James Hart's guitar is rarely heard in these parts, stylistically speaking, it typically comes with a slice of irony and little musical precision. And onstage, the live attack of this Pittsburgh quintet -- none of whom are siblings -- draws deeply from indie rock, with plenty of quiet-to-loud dynamic shifts.
"We're sort of referential, but at the same time, we aren't as conscious of it as some people," says Paul Kyla, who plays electric piano. The bandmembers cite a vast array of musical favorites -- everyone from Guided by Voices to saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders -- yet they aren't jaded know-it-alls who try to put their knowledge on display with their own writing. While Kyla says the band may occasionally try to steer a song in the direction of say, Lynyrd Skynyrd or Creedence Clearwater Revival, "most of the time it happens by accident."
Fate also seemed to have a hand in the band's formation. When Hart met guitarist and vocalist Carrie Battle, they sat in his living room singing Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released," and their course was set. "This is my first real band," Battle says. "When I heard [Hart] play, sitting on the couch, I said, 'James, we need to be in a band together!'" Hart and bassist Jules Krishnamurti, friends since junior high, had met Kyla in a previous band, and after a mutual friend pushed drummer Neal Kling on them, the lineup was complete.
However their sound and lineup has come together, their new self-titled album stands as one of the strongest local debuts in a long time. Much like the late Johnsons Big Band, who could've taken the world by storm in the early '00s, the Harlan Twins' songs have a familiar quality that gets spun through an original lens. And like Modey Lemon, the live Harlan Twins can create a fury that brings an audience to its feet, screaming and whooping. If the album leans a little more toward traditional rock roots, it only means a more diverse audience will be lured into the band's camp.
Hart says he and Battle share a mutual love for "old-time country stuff like the Carter Family," as well as original roots rock like Creedence, The Band and Van Morrison. Kyla and Krishnamurti serve as foils due to their backgrounds in electronic and experimental music, respectively. "It's great because without them, I would be so earnest it would be painful," Hart says.
The wide array of influences makes for a band that would rather try to incorporate bits of everything than settle on one style. "We're the most commitment-phobic group of people," Hart says. "We have all these different things that we want to do and we found a way to squeeze them into what we're doing normally. And I think what wins out, no matter what we're actually trying to do, is that we really have a good time playing."
The end result feels like a focused band that knows how to channel all of its inspirations. The album starts with spirited tent-revival handclaps and foot stomps, and when "White Light" eventually kicks in, the guitar picking, walking bass line and soaring harmonies that elevate Battle's lead vocal seem to come from the land of boogie rock. In "Stinging Bee," Battle sounds like Chan Marshall's doppelganger and Hart switches to pedal steel for the appropriate melancholy mood.
The album's running order has mood changes with nearly every track. "Stones in My Passway" and, more significantly, the rave-up "Get Gone" showcase Hart's licks and the passion of his gravelly voice, while Battle ends the album on a soft note with the spare "Blue in Bloomfield."
The band hopes to get on the road eventually; in the meantime, the members feel energized by the scene that surrounds them. "I think there's a lot of exciting shit going on," Hart says. "I feel like there have been waves in Pittsburgh and I've always sort of hoped that maybe the last one is big enough that it tips out and people start looking into Pittsburgh as a national scene."
The Harlan Twins CD Release with Mariage Blanc and Big Hurry. 9 p.m. Fri., July 10. Brillobox, 4104 Penn Ave., Bloomfield. $5. 412-621-4900 or www.brillobox.net