The Harlan Twins
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The Harlan Twins

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"Local band The Harlan Twins are born to boogie on compelling self-titled album"


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Commitment-phobic: The Harlan Twins

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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." - Pittsburgh City Paper

"Harlan Twins quintet has one-of-a-kind sound"

By Michael Machosky, TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Thursday, July 9, 2009
If it's a mistake to judge a book by its cover, that goes double for judging a band by its name.

The Harlan Twins, one of the best new bands in Pittsburgh, aren't a really a pair of banjo-picking Kentucky coal miner's daughters -- although that misconception probably wouldn't annoy them, either.

The Harlan Twins are actually a quintet of young multi-instrumentalists with a raw-boned, roots-driven sound succinctly summed up on their Myspace page as "yinzer pastoral." It encompasses both pretty acoustic balladry and euphoric, barroom-rattling Crazy Horse-style guitar heroics.

"It's really loud folk-rock," says vocalist-guitarist-pedal steel player James Hart.

"I've used the phrase '70s country-rock, for lack of a better thing to say," says Carrie Battle, who plays guitar, banjo, ukulele and sings. "Or 'Bloomfield Americana.'"

"I just tell people we're in a rock band, and totally duck the question," says vocalist-keyboardist-melodica player Paul Zyla.

The band is hosting a CD release party for its first album this Friday night at the Brillobox. Though the Harlan Twins are mostly in their late 20s, they feel that this music has been rattling around Pittsburgh for a long time, and it's their turn to tap into it.

"There was a really big folk scene here in the '60s, that Calliope is the last remnant of. I'm a child of that," Hart says. "It's also a classic rock town, and working class. Not a lot of songwriters write great songs about unions -- it's hard, only Springsteen can really do it. So the only other way to go if you're associating with that kind of life is Americana, and folk."

The urban/rural divide animates a lot of the Harlan Twins' music, which is driven by Battle and Hart's striking, curiously complementary songwriting.

One highlight of the new, self-titled album is Battle's "Can't Be Blue in Bloomfield." It's both a very personal lost-love story, and an anthemic barroom singalong about finding solace in friends and neighbors, in the neighborhood most of the band calls home.

Another is Hart's "Stones in My Passway," which begins with a Robert Johnson quotation and a quiet acoustic blues -- then explodes into a raucous, ragged Southern rock epic.

Despite a clear appreciation for Neil Young, Bob Dylan and The Band, there are plenty of unexpected turns in the Harlan Twins' music.

"Jules (Krishnamurti, bass) and I definitely come from a different background than James and Carrie, in that Jules and I are both classically trained musicians, and have always been into more experimental kinds of music," Zyla says. "And I have an extensive background in electronic music. That comes out in the music here and there. We're sort of the psych-rock (psychedelic) part of the band. Influences come from all over the place, from James listening to (Alan) Lomax field recordings to Jules wanting things to sound like Motorhead."

Then there's that name. "Harlan" is partly a reference to Harlan County, Kentucky.

"There's an old song called 'Talking Blues' that goes, 'It's a long way to Harlan, it's a long way to Hazard to get a little booze,'" Hart says. "We were looking for a family name, like the Carter Family and the Stanley Brothers. We went through a couple names and couldn't find anything that wasn't awful that wasn't already taken."

"We noticed James' pedal steel guitar was made by the Harlan company," Zyla says. "It was kind of a sign."
- Pittsburgh Tribune Review

"Pastoral Pop: The Harlan Twins celebrate inaugural album with record release show at Brillobox"

Aptly described as "yinzer pastoral," the band's sound is equally at home with the psych,
folk and pop rock sounds of decades gone by as it is with experiments in tape loops and
feedback. Mining the melodic yet edgy guitar and vocal work of Neil Young, as well as the
laid back rural rock of The Band, the group flavors its melodies with tasteful layered
arrangements of pedal steel guitar, electric piano, rollicking backing vocals, horns,
Hammond organ, and plenty of tremolo.

Songs like "Get Gone" delve into '70s rock territory with riffs that recall the driving
rhythms and melodies of Thin Lizzy, Thunderclap Newman and The Faces, while Carrie Battle's
vocal turn on "I Can't Be Blue in Bloomfield," followed by the gentle tune's meandering horn
line, will have you searching for a swimming hole and whistling at birds in the city. - Pop City (Pgh. culture blog/website)

"Harlan Twins marries The Band with indie-rock preview"

Thursday, July 09, 2009
By Scott Mervis, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Two or three minutes into the song "Greenline," from the new album by the Harlan Twins, you might think you're listening to the Band, as in that classic Americana group whose rag-tag sound is so hard to duplicate.

It's only one side to the Harlan Twins, a shape-shifting Pittsburgh quintet that blends backwoods folk-rock with lo-fi indie-rock and swirling shoegazer tangents, courtesy of electric guitars and B3 organ.

So, did the Harlan Twins set out to be some kind of indie-rock answer to Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm's crew?

"No, not really. Not consciously, at least," says James Hart, who shares writing and vocal duties with Carrie Battle. "I think the The Band influence is probably pretty palpable in a lot of our stuff, but it's hard to get away from, given the amount that both [Carrie] and I listened to them in our formative years. I think we wanted to be a folk-rock band that was a little pretty and a little rude, and we didn't want to put banjos on everything to signal that we were 'folky.' I personally wanted to have a band that sounded like Beck's 'Sea Change' if he could be bothered to have a good time.
"The Band has always been a big influence for James and I, but it's because that's the kind of music that gives us the shivers," Battle says. "I just wanted to give us the shivers."
The Harlan Twins have their roots in a band called Omolara, which Hart says was "doing electronic and experimental music-influenced pop -- heavy on the Portishead and Stereolab touches." It would include keyboardist Paul Zyla, who has put out several electronic releases under the name Relative Q.
After Omolara disbanded around 2004, Hart says they started recording dance music and "some creepy drum-less folk rock" before getting tired of not being in a live band. In the fall of 2007, the Harlan Twins started to take shape with Hart, Zyla, bassist Jules Krishnamurti and Battle, a roommate of a friend who was looking for a project. There was a quick chemistry between the two singer-songwriters -- once they got down to music at least.

"My very first impression of James was, 'Why can't this kid put a toilet seat down?' " Battle says. "He was dating a roommate of mine at the time, and was also prone to trimming his beard in our sink. This impression changed completely, however, when I heard him pick up the guitar we kept in the living room. He had a style that was exactly what I've always played and loved and I knew instantly that he and I had to write songs together. The first song we sang together was 'I Shall Be Released,' and we sat on the couch for probably an hour afterward saying, 'Oh man, this is exactly what I want to be doing. We have to do this!' "

"I think we have a tendency to know where the other one wants to go with something," Hart says, "and we're good at keeping each other excited about what we're doing. I remind her that stuff is usually more fun if it's loud and she reels me in when I'm being tasteless."

The Harlan Twins have called themselves "yinzer pastoral" and have been described as "Pittsburgh's answer to indie-folk acts like Akron/Family and the Dodos." While they're at it, they might as well throw in indie heroes the Magnolia Electric Company.

"Whatever sound we have," Hart says, "is a result of everyone trying to get their two cents in; Carrie and I were always sure that we wanted there to be as much vocal harmony as possible and we both have a tendency to write songs that are basically folk-rock forms. Paul spent a lot of time listening to electronic music and shoegaze and has a tendency to get really into textures, which is where a lot of what you hear in 'Pretty Bird' and the intro to 'Stones' comes from. Jules also has some history with experimental music [with a composition degree from CMU] -- which leads to some of the John Cale-esque string stuff on 'Coral Castle.' As a bass player he tends to play what feels good, which is why he and [drummer] Neal [Kling] take every opportunity to play heavy."

Despite the touches of indie-rock and country, Hart doesn't really see the Harlan Twins fitting into any kind of alt-country formula.

"Wilco's early stuff was some of what made me want to be in bands when I was in high school, and I like the scary immediacy of Bonnie Prince Billy's stuff, but for the most part alt-country feels like it's being made for retirees or grad students these days and I don't know that we can really write like that."

One thing people might be wondering is how a band without twins or anyone named Harlan came to be called the Harlan Twins.

"We went through a long and painfully stupid naming process," Hart says, "in which we discovered that every name we came up with that everyone liked was already taken. In the end we knew that we wanted a 'family-ish' name. Carrie and I are into stuff like The Carter Family, Delmore Brothers, etc., and a twins name seemed doable, if only because she and I look so little alike. The Harlan name either came from the line 'long way to Harlan, long way to Hazard, to get a little brew' in 'Talking Blues,' or from the name of the company that made my pedal steel, Harlin Bros. We can't really remember."

First published on July 9, 2009 at 12:00 am - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


We have one self-titled album out, that has two songs ("Greenline" and "Stones In My Passway") that have seen local airplay on WYEP, WPTS, and WRCT.



Over the last year The Harlan Twins have become a staple of the Pittsburgh scene, building a reputation for energetic live performances colored with the spontaneity and conviction of elemental rock and roll.

Blending the harmony and chime of The Band and Dylan with the unsubtle and unstable energy of The Stones and Pavement, whispers of Eno, Hazel Dickens, and Mo Tucker.

Referential but not derivative, their disparate influences make them dynamic: they play loud - they play soft, they get pretty - they get heavy, they sound desperate - they sound free...

Now they’re hitting the road behind their debut album, and they would really like to play some rock and roll for you.