“Here Be Monsters,” Ed Harcourt’s Capitol debut, takes its title from a warning on early maps, cautioning sailors from uncharted territory. Tacking on current pop trade winds, he drifted off into some well-traveled musical ports during his appearance at the El Rey.
On his first American tour with a full band, Harcourt displays an impressive stylistic fluency. But moving up to the El Rey from smaller clubs, he never seemed to find his comfort zone, although he was warmly received by the half-filled room.
Constantly fidgeting and making lame small talk, he looked like someone on a first date that was going badly. He seemed most at ease when interacting with the other musicians. Their finely detailed performances, with mournful trumpet lines, portentous glockenspiel and a patina of guitar noise and effects, provided sympathetic support.
But at this point in his career, Harcourt has yet to find a voice of his own. The blue-eyed soul of “She Fell Into May Arms” recalls early Todd Rundgren, but without the lyric bite; “Swamp” is a dramatic ballad a la Jacques Brel or Scott Walker that lacks their lunatic bravado; “Apple of My Eye” aims for Rufus Wainwright’s pop sense but misses his grandiloquence. “Birds Fly Backwards” is probably the strongest tune of the night, matching a dreamy melody with insistent piano triplets. But over the course of his hourlong set, the singer that Harcourt most resembles is former Animal Alan Price, a sadly underrated musician who made some fine records in the ’60s and ’70s, especially the soundtrack to “O Lucky Man!”
Harcourt plays the Bowery Ballroom in New York on May 20.