Spotlight on Harvey Danger’s Where have all the merrymakers gone?

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Harvey Danger (photo via EW)

If it not often that someone mentions Harvey Danger casually in conversation.  And if when someone does, it is usually followed by some reference to “Flagpole Sitta,” their incredibly catchy crossover hit that appeared on MTV and in a number of movies during the late 90s and early 2000s.

Earlier this year, No Sleep Records announced a reissue of Where have all the merrymakers gone, their 1997 album where one could find that famous song. As one of the people who remember Harvey Danger beyond that one song, I jumped at the chance to own this vinyl.

Harvey Danger – Where have all the merrymakers gone? (1997, Arena Rock)

While Where have all the merrymakers gone is not my favorite Harvey Danger album (that honor goes to 2000’s King James Version), I believe it is full of some very unique songs by this very unique band. It is the subject of today’s vinyl listening session.

 

Formed in Seattle in the early 1990s, Harvey Danger was a huge part of the other Washington State music scene. Along with bands like The Long Winters and Death Cab for Cutie, they were at the forefront of the hyper-literal pop movement. Along with the memorable vocal style of Sean Nelson, Aaron Huffman’s bass-lines lead the melodies instead of taking a supporting role.   Jeff Lin on guitar and Evan Sult on drums rounded out the lineup. They were fantastic foursome who worked together to write the songs and split the profits.  They had one singular moment of popularity and then faded back into their familiar alternative scene.

As I opened the reissue, I was struck by the inside gatefold.  Not only does it feature the lyrics to all the songs, it features an essay by Sean Nelson himself. He takes the time to reflect on the band and this album that was released 17 years ago.  He references the band’s moment in the sun and how strange it all seemed.  “To hear the person you were when you weren’t yet the person you are now is to understand how little you understood, and to recognize how little you eve could have understood,” Nelson writes.

 

At times, it may seem like this band was in the vein of The Offspring and other “hilarious” bands. But I contend that Harvey Danger was slightly more sophisticated.  Most of their songs could not be defined as straight up love songs. Instead the songs are truthful displays of angst with an angle towards snarky reactions. They change tempos and even their sad songs, like “Problems and Bigger Ones,” are sped up.  In the end, it all comes back to those lead bass-lines.

“Carlotta Valdez” is among the most powerful album openers.  It starts with Huffman’s signature bassline.  Lyrically, it expresses a desire to make a loved one more than the one he loves.

 

The second track is that famed “Flagpole Sitta” song. This song has the “bahhh bahhhhh” and is very catchy. Nothing else needs to be said about this song. It was their “breakthrough.” It is why everyone probably knows their name. It was the source of many, many lip-dub “viral” videos.  In the gatefold essay, Nelson recognizes how popular this song was and how the band is defined by the song and even imparts “confidential” advice to all cover bands who attempt to master this song (it’s all in the lead basslines).

One of the other defining characteristics of Harvey Danger isNelson’s strange inflections. It is like a precursor to the vocal talk-sing style of Craig Finn or Colin Meloy.  He sings and exclaims the most important moments.

The album’s fourth song, “Private Helicopter,” is one of the best on the album.  The track tells a strange story of hanging-out with an ex-best friend and an ex-girlfriend. There is an bit of snark; Nelson describes the ex-girlfriend as his “favorite” before recounting their relationship. He sings “Now we’re alone and we can remember how it felt at first/ the desperate need to be together/ Must’ve been good for something.”

In “Terminal Annex,” the lyrics are scathing. “Dreaming of the fistfight I never got into/ Thinking of the mean shit I wish I’d said to you/ Such a fancy lady, call her Secretina/ She didn’t get all the good stuff/ But she looked like you.”  

Harvey Danger is one of those bands worth way more than people give them credit for. When I attended their farewell tour in 2009 in Boston, Mass, I was struck by how fervent their fan base is.  Everyone sang along to each song. We all danced to “Flagpole Sitta.”  They have a sense of humor about their aesthetic and created a community of like-minded individuals. Whether or not they ever make a comeback, it doesn’t matter because they will always be known as a lyrically unique band with bass-line driven tunes.

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