When I mention to someone that Harvey Danger is one of my favorite bands, two things invariably happen: 1) there’s a reaction along the lines of “oh yeah, I forgot about them,” and 2) there’s mention of “Flagpole Sitta.” (Unless I mention this in my & Harvey Danger’s hometown of Seattle, in which case this statement usually gets a very positive response, or I get teased relentlessly. Anyway.)

As far as songs go, being known for “Flagpole Sitta” isn’t a bad thing. It’s a good song (and still my preferred choice to sing while I’m in the shower). What is a bad thing, though, is the fact that it’s often the only thing Harvey Danger is known for, when they deserve to be known for writing some of the most intriguing and complex music and lyrics in the past 10 years.

To this casual listener, I’m sure this sounds like a very bold statement. So please, read on as I make my case for this argument in something of a mini Idiot’s Guide to: Harvey Danger.

Harvey Danger: “Private Helicopter” (download)
Harvey Danger: “Woolly Muffler” (download)
Harvey Danger: “Radio Silence” (download)
Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone?
(1997) was an auspicious debut. So auspicious, in fact, that it produced Harvey Danger’s biggest (and some might say only) hit. Now, I can’t (and won’t) talk shit about people who bought this record solely for “Flagpole Sitta,” (music video here) because, originally, I did too. Like most people, I gave it one or two half-hearted listens and other than that, never paid much attention to it. A few years ago, I was going through my CD collection and gave it a more thorough listen. I felt like an idiot who’d been missing out on something incredible that’s been right in front of their face the entire time.
While “Private Helicopter” (music video here) could easily have followed along in the hit single category, the rest of Merrymakers is constructed quite differently. One of the things that’s great about this album, and about Harvey Danger as a band, is the way the songs evolve. This isn’t a band that sticks to simple, boring, verse-chorus-verse structures — sure, they use that formula here and there, but musically, the first verse rarely sounds like the second, and the second time you hear the chorus, it sounds much different from the first time. They constantly change tempos and add instruments — but not in a way that’s distracting, or that makes their songs sound like an Animal Collective-style experimental band. In the first 30 seconds of “Woolly Muffler,” each instrument slowly makes its entrance. At 1:37, the song builds and changes again. The song constantly moves back and forth in this way, but it’s not distracting or unnatural sounding. “Radio Silence” builds up and evolves throughout the entirety of the song, providing an interesting complement to Sean Nelson’s chanting, “is it too much much to ask you just to maintain a little / maintain a little / maintain a little / maintain a little.” These songs are also perfect examples of Harvey Danger’s ability to absolutely nail ballads and catchy, throw you around rockers.
Have I written too much? You see, Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? is the kind of album that it’s easy to ramble on about, because it’s just so good. And, as history tells us, following up an album this good is, well, hard… (Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? on Amazon.com.)

Harvey Danger: “Authenticity” (download)
Harvey Danger: “The Same As Being In Love” (download)
Harvey Danger: “Pike St. / Park Slope” (download)
It’s apt that their sophomore effort, King James Version (2000), is named after the Bible, because it sounds like old testament vs. new testament. Half of the songs could have easily fit on Merrymakers, while the other half are trying to move in a new direction. King James Version is clearly the work of a band that wants to hold onto their success, but do something different at the same time. Because of this, the album as a whole has a bit of a disoriented, distracted feeling — much like the cover art. However, more importantly, it’s still a quality album.
“Authenticity” shows Harvey Danger sticking to the old testament — it’s in the same vein as most of the material from Merrymakers. “The Same As Being In Love” illustrates where they were trying to go: mid-tempo and more piano based. It’s also one of the songs where Nelson’s lyrics stand out most: “this attraction, introspection-diction predilection is breaking my heart again, breaking my heart again.” Though Nelson’s lyrics are pretty stellar on all of Harvey Danger’s efforts, this album is my personal favorite, lyrics-wise. Is “Pike St. / Park Slope” the tale of a man being dejected by his lover, or the tale of a man and two cities? I perfer the latter interpretation, but some prefer the first. Either way, it showcases Nelson’s talent for writing lyrics that are straight-forwardly beautiful. He doesn’t need metaphor or similie — his words are those of the person who is never at a loss for the perfect thing to say. “I’ve come about my share, I only want what’s fair / anyone who knows me knows that I’m not greedy / like everybody else, I wanna pay my dues / (I only want someone to tell me who to make the check out to.)”
King James Version found a mild hit in “Sad Sweetheart of The Rodeo” (music video here), but didn’t quite take off the way the band could’ve hoped. Harvey Danger disbanded a while later, but Sean Nelson kept his career going with the Long Winters. (King James Version on Amazon.com.)

Harvey Danger: “Wine, Women and Song” (download)
Harvey Danger: “Cream and Bastards Rise” (download)
Harvey Danger: “Moral Centralia” (download)
With King James Version, Harvey Danger began to move towards somewhere new. With Little By Little (2005), they actually got there. And it only took 5 years.
Though the aesthetic of Merrymakers is still present in some ways (“Cream and Bastards Rise”), as is the aesthetic of King James Version (“Wine, Women and Song”), most of Little By Little finds the band blending the two (“Moral Centralia”).
Of their three albums, Little By Little is the most polished, and follows conventional song structures the most, which the material benefits from at times, and suffers from at others. What the album lacks, though, is what Harvey Danger is so good at — ballads that have points of smashing guitars, or songs that build pressure until they just explode. Their previous efforts were full of songs like this, whereas the only song that comes close on Little By Little is “War Buddies.” Maybe the band got all of that out of their system, or maybe being in the Long Winters made Sean Nelson more fond of stict adherence to pop song-writing structures. But it’s the one thing that’s missing, the thing that could’ve really pushed Little By Little from very good to great.
Harvey Danger released Little By Little themselves — you can download the whole thing entirely free of charge on the band’s website, where you can also buy it, with a CD of b-sides to sweeten the pot. Kill Rock Stars is releasing it with a different tracklisting (they ditched “Incommunicado” and added “Picture, Picture”), and a CD of b-sides different from the CD of b-sides you get if you order it from the band’s website. Collect all three!

Harvey Danger: “Jack The Lion (Live)” (download)
If you’re still not convinced, I highly, highly suggest seeing Harvey Danger live. “Jack The Lion” is a track from Merrymakers, and is so acutely emotional that if you’re not sad and/or angry at your father, it makes you feel like you should be — and every ounce of that comes across in the live version. They tour the west coast in Mid-August, and tackle the east coast in late September. Dates and info are up on their myspace page, but in case you’re too lazy to click:

Aug 4 2006 8:00P
Neumo’s Seattle, WA
Aug 10 2006 8:00P
Cafe du Nord San Francisco, CA
Aug 11 2006 8:00P
Largo Los Angeles, CA
Aug 12 2006 8:00P
Spaceland Los Angeles, CA
Aug 13 2006 8:00P
The Casbah San Diego
Sep 27 2006 8:00P
400 Bar Minneapolis, MN
Sep 28 2006 8:00P
Illini Union Courtyard Urbana, IL
Sep 29 2006 8:00P
U of W Memorial Union Madison, WI
Sep 30 2006 9:30P
Schubas Chicago, IL
Oct 2 2006 8:00P
Mohawk Place Buffalo, NY
Oct 3 2006 8:00P
Lee’s Palace Toronto
Oct 4 2006 9:00P
Main Hall Montreal
Oct 5 2006 9:00P
Great Scott Allston, MA
Oct 6 2006 8:00P
First Unitarian Church Philadelphia, PA
Oct 7 2006 8:00P
Mercury Lounge New York, NY
Oct 8 2006 8:00P
Maxwell’s Hoboken, NJ

And, yes, they’ll probably play “Flagpole Sitta”…