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RECOMMENDATION: Harvey Danger / revisiting an old favorite

I’m back! And this time, I’m back with a very specific recommendation that will lead to a big, vague recommendation that should make everyone happy.

I’m going to start out with a little bit of word association: I say, “Seattle music scene,” you say….

Flannel? Pearl Jam? Nirvana? Grunge? Smelly Teen Spirit?

Take it all back, guys. We’re talking about Sean Nelson and the guys of Harvey Danger, or what I like to think of as the fast-beating bloody heart of the whole northeastern sound. It’s loud, it’s raw, it’s emotional, it’s pained, it’s loving (and isn’t this what so much rock music is missing?), it’s open– and it’s sarcastic and harsh and smart. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that Harvey Danger > whatever Seattle band you like. (It’s my blog, I get to make vast statements about subjectivity and stand by them.)

Here’s where you say: Really, Katie? I mean, you go from recommending Josh Ritter, who is so obviously heads and shoulders above all of the songwriters in the world, to recommending some college rock band from the 90s whose biggest hit actually included the line, “I’ve been around the world and found that only stupid people are breeding/ The cretins cloning and feeding/ And I don’t even own a TV.”

But they aren’t just any college rock band from the 90s. You guys, this is my college rock band from the 90s.

What makes Harvey Danger so great is the way they turn words around. They’re witty, they usually drop a couple literary references a song, and it’s hard to keep up with them if you aren’t paying attention– but it’s enjoyable whether you ‘get it’ or not.

One of my favorite songs by them, “Old Hat,” pretty much explains their greatness. (Sidenote: This is Maggie and my ‘song’. Yes, we realize that not all groups of best friends have a song, but they all should. And this one is ours.) Some of my favorite lines are:

I’m like a simile, I paint suggestive pictures of me and you…

Call me freaky, call me childish, call me Ishmael, just call me back, call me back”

And then the part that Maggie and I like to scream with the windows down:

I forget
What my friends look like
And they forget
Why they like me
But that’s old hat
I’m so happy
How do you write about that?
How do you write about that?

That album, “Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone?” also features their huge hit “Flagpole Sitta” and a milder hit, “Private Helicopter,” which is equally as good (but sometimes hard to listen to). All of their music is intensely specific, which always makes it personal.

Their next album, “King James Version,” explores themes of love and faith and something that Ryan Adams calls “an abundance of inherited sadness”. Though I would consider every song on the album edgy (lyrics like “I have a stinger/ I am a honey bee/ I am a razor/ Please cut your wrists with me” from “Authenticity), the slower songs are the ones that really shine. “Pike St./Park Slope” has some incredible lyrics like,

When you like something
It’s an opinion
But when I like something
It’s a manifesto
Pomposity is when you think you’re right
Arrogance is when you know…”

Other lyrics I like from this album include (God, this is easy, I get to let them speak for themselves):

“Tragedy requires a little greatness to begin with…”

“I was the typo, you were the liquid paper”

“When you base your whole identity on a reaction against somebody
It’s the same as being in love”

“I’m all up in the madding crowd, but the general keeps screwing us around”

Another cool fact about this album: On the song “This is the Thrilling Conversation You’ve Been Waiting For,” Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie is singing the backup vocals. I actually discovered Death Cab through Harvey Danger.

And then finally, in 2005, they reunited (though they’d released a couple of great EPs, including my all time favorite Christmas song, “Sometimes You Have To Work On Christmas (Sometimes)”) and released “Little By Little…” which is musically a little more refined (they’ve done some work with and for Kill Rock Stars, but I think Barsuk got the re-release on LBL– which accounts for a slight difference in production). The lyrics, however, are classic Harvey Danger, with songs like “Cream and Bastards” (refrain: “Only cream and bastards rise!”) and “Little Round Mirrors,” which is sort of a haunting portrayal of what lonliness will do, and how narcissism and sadness are so easily linked.

My favorite song is actually a nod to a Philip Larkin quote, “Happiness Writes White.” Lyrics like,

Ariella, 11:30, I don’t want to go to sleep
Turn the TV off already, curse the hours we have to keep
As you know, I’ve never been a confident man
I’ve been in the tall grass all my life
But then you came along, now there’s one less thing wrong
Even though happiness writes white”

The inability to describe happiness is a recurring theme in Harvey Danger’s music, and it’s enlightening and a relief– instead of filling the world with more empty proclamations, they fess up, they rock out, they make me feel good. And that’s what a rock band should do.

NOW, for the real recommendation: Think of some band that made you feel really, really good five or ten years ago, but that you don’t listen to or talk about anymore. Maybe they broke up. Maybe you’re embarrassed because they had one really popular song that didn’t really represent them fairly (I’m looking at you, Nada Surf fans). And listen to it again. And feel that again. I’m having a wonderful day because of it. (And do me a favor: Talk about it in the comments! I’d love to know what you’re listening to.)

4 Responses to “RECOMMENDATION: Harvey Danger / revisiting an old favorite”

  • Evan M. H.:

    I love me some Harvey Danger. I’ve listened to “Little By Little” and “Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone” dozens of times and just keep coming back to it. I think it’s a shame that they are known for the song Flagpole Sitta. It’s a great bouncy little tune, but it’s far exceeded in quality by a lot of their other music. Especially Jack the Lion!

  • Katie Darby:

    @Evan: I completely forgot I had a Seattle-ite reading the blog! Oh man, I LOVE Jack the Lion. But honestly, I love all of their songs for different reasons. I’d love to be able to write like Nelson– it’s the verbal equivalent of a suckerpunch.

  • Kelly:

    I’m an Itunes girl, and I’ve been wanting to buy Flagpole Sitta (I think that’s the one, I thought it was called Paranoid or something…)forever, but it isn’t in the Itunes store!!! Arrgghhh. I may have to buy that album someday…

  • Katie Darby:

    @Kelly:

    “Flagpole Sitta”s the one– but honestly, if you like that song, the whole album will appeal to you, probably. It’s the same intensity, the same use of wordplay– really a strange album, but I’ve worn out two copies of it. It’s a little harder rock than what I normally recommend here, and after reading your blog, I think it probably suits your tastes a little better than say, Josh Ritter. If you want, I can send you a track or two when I get home via email so you can know whether or not you like it. Just let me know!

    Katie

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