Monday, June 8, 2009

Harvey Danger. Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? (Arena Rock, 1997)

"Here's a fact you cannot rise above/ We'll have problems and then we'll have bigger ones."

Harvey Danger were victims of their own success. Having toiled in the Seattle club scene for the better part of the '90s, the guitar pop quartet barged into the mainstream on the strength of their 1997 single "Flagpole Sitta," which was featured in the post-Scream teen horror hit (and Katie Holmes vehicle) Disturbing Behavior and quickly ensconced itself as a staple/bright spot of Clinton era alt-rock radio.

Shortly thereafter, Harvey Danger found themselves selling a crap ton of their debut LP Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? (the title is taken from a line slurred by a blotto Shelley Winters in the 1966 thriller Harper, starring Paul Newman as the titular private eye. You should see it, it's good), becoming hopelessly overexposed, and thereafter sinking into commercial oblivion having achieved the unenviable position of being forgotten by the fickle masses and written off as mainstream one-hitters by the cognoscenti.

Which is way too bad, seeing as 1) "Flagpole Sitta" truly rules, and 2) the rest of Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? is pretty effing great. Harvey Danger deserved the attention, but didn't deserve the backlash, and their debut still stands as a forgotten indie gem, an example of a quirky, smart band obtaining massive mainstream attention.

Let's just start with "Flagpole Sitta." You remember it: a galloping, feverishly hooky mammoth jam, buoyed by a bouncing bassline and irresistibly propulsive drum track, all snappy snares and slamming kickdrum hits. Singer Sean Nelson channels Elvis Costello as he spits out frenzied paranoia like, "Hear the voices in my head/ I swear to God it sounds like they're snoring/ But if you're bored then you're boring/ The agony and the irony, they're killing me," in an adenoidal singsong that's impossible to forget. On top of that, Jeff J. Lin turns in some satisfyingly thorny guitar work, twisting the main riffs to the breaking point and wringing some impressive chaos from his instrument. This is no Eve 6/Marcy Playground/Dishwalla wannabe: it's a song that most bands would kill to write.

And then there's the rest of the album, which adds up to a consistently solid collection of samurai-sharp indie pop. These guys had apparently been listening to the right stuff along the way, from the Attractions to Unrest to the Pixies, steeping their sound in punchy melodies and advanced-class song structures, getting loads of mileage out of the loud-quiet-loud dynamic and wrapping the tunes in just the right amount of smart-assery. The production, by John Goodmanson (who's manned the boards for such indie luminaries as Sleater-Kinney, Pavement, Blonde Redhead, Bikini Kill, and Los Campesinos!) does Harvey Danger all kinds of favors, nailing and amplifying the essential tunefulness of the songs and delivering them like a roundhouse to the jaw.

The first half of the record is gold. Besides the aforementioned "Flagpole Sitta," there's the sugar rush of "Carlotta Valdez," floating on agile strums and catchy bass work until the power chords add menace and weight, and the slow build of "Woolly Muffler," which bides its time until exploding into pure rock fury (well, annoyance, anyway) at the 1:44 mark, guitars blaring and cymbals crashing. "Friends will turn against you/ People disappoint you every time/ So if you've got greatness in you/ Would you do us all a favor and keep it to yourself," sneers Nelson before expounding on a "belabored expat fantasy." The soaring "Private Helicopter" marries ex-girlfriend fantasies to serrated hooks and on-a-dime time changes, while "Problems And Bigger Ones" is the album's most successful down-tempo number, a smoldering, bruising elegy for lost love and missed chances that wouldn't sound out of place on the Promise Ring's emo triumph Nothing Feels Good.

Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? loses a little steam in the back half, but there's nothing embarrassing here. A few too many slow jams, but the rockers are beyond competent, especially the swinging "Old Hat" and "Terminal Annex," with its vaguely Cure-like sparkle and fade, blown-amp solos, and genius put-downs: "You complain about an overflowing cup/ Don't forget that I'm the one who filled that fucker up."

If you'd forgotten about Harvey Danger or written them off, you owe them another listen. You can find Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? for about one cent on Amazon or whatever, and believe me: Harvey Danger's thoughts are worth your penny.