Three important rules for breaking up
Don’t put off breaking up when you know you want to
Prolonging the situation only makes it worse
Tell him honestly, simply, kindly, but firmly
Don’t make a big production
Don’t make up an elaborate story
—Nada Surf, “Popular”
Check my score—seriously, I dare you. In the last few years I’ve been collecting indie points like they’re Mario coins, bashing my head against every rock block I see and grabbing the gold. I’ve got more than a few one-ups waiting, so there’s room to lose a few lives:
Harvey Danger could be one of the most vibrant indie acts out there.
Yes, Harvey “I had visions, I was in them, I was looking into the mirror” Danger. The original Flagpole Sittas, those folks who weren’t quite sick, weren’t quite well, and, however badly phrased, were often prone to getting hot as hell. Originally released on uber-indie Arena Rock, the band’s debut skyrocketed to the majors on the power of that oh-so-memorable single. It’s important to accentuate that first part, though, that the record was originally an indie release. Hyper-literate and achingly self-aware, Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone? bounced back and forth between quirky, butt-kicking radio rockers and dark, introverted ballads with inimitable indie edge. It was at once disturbing and dreamy, a record that, left alone, might have oozed with underground respectability.
But there’s no accounting for taste, or over-saturation. Cast into the shadows, Harvey Danger have been mostly quiet in the decade since they made their ostentatious mark. When they flew their second major-label record up the flagpole, no one saluted; instead, they were sent home with other overblown ‘90s acts like Fastball, Semisonic, and Nada Surf to think about what they’d done. Well, maybe not the last one. Nada Surf has since reinserted itself into the scene that birthed it, and the lyrics above (from their similarly over-extended ‘90s single) have been all but forgotten in their new era of salacious indie pop.
In a similar bid for respectability, Harvey Danger reinvented itself last year, eschewing the alternative edge that once defined its sound for the serious swell of edgy, introspective piano rock. Their new record, Little By Little, unearths the band’s original energy, but with a more intelligent, indie-savvy edge. Sean Nelson’s scathing staccato is very much in place, but now it dances over the smack of ivory instead of cutting lamely through buzzy, muff-pedal distortion.
The band self-released the record last year, and the overwhelming response landed them a deal with Kill Rock Stars. So, it seems they’ve successfully re-entered the American imagination, and in a way that warrants respectability, right?
Well, sort of. When I tell people I’m off to see Harvey Danger, they have trouble keeping a straight face. It seems the scars of over-saturation remain even after the wounds themselves have healed. And perhaps the cuts ran deeper than I realized.
Nelson emerges metrosexualized to the nth degree in slacks and a suit, his classy duds offset by a brown, checkered scarf. He doesn’t look old, or young. Rather, he seems comfortable in his mid-30s skin. Bassist Aaron Huffman appears a little worse for wear, his nerd-chic evoking the image of Bill Gates with his head pressed lightly in at every angle. But that’s no biggie. I recently saw a reworked Soul Asylum, grasping for all they were worth at some semblance of youth, and I’d prepared myself for a similarly sad spectacle. But, by and large, these boys still have fairly pretty mugs.
It’s the band’s first NYC show in eight years, and they immediately begin to make up for lost time, crashing through the gate with two alt-rock barn-burners from their early records. My hands are clapping, my head nodding with recognition, but something sour is creeping along the side of my tongue. As they pump into a third back-catalog beast, a question arises: is it possible that these guys don’t understand what they’re trying to do?
Consider the idea that there are two types of aging acts. On one hand you have those who, after hitting it big, burn the books, return to their roots, and pay only light service (if any at all) to their past. Nada Surf has taken this approach, and it’s served the band well. Rather than appease old, fair-weather fans, they’ve withdrawn from that early era. In stark contrast, Soul Asylum (a slightly older act, but one similarly burned by one-hit wonderdom) play almost exclusively from their back catalog, refusing more than a slight spattering of new material. Thus one act remains vital while the other slowly slips onto the oldies circuit.
To be fair, not every band has the option or the insight to choose their fate. Soul Asylum are still entrenched in their glistening grunge pastiche, so retro touring is probably the best that they can do. But, on Little by Little, Harvey Danger make an elegant stab at scenario one, wrenching out their innards and completely retooling their insides. They have the chance to surf a Nada-style wave. And, if they catch it, the boons far outweigh the burden.
I’m thinking these thoughts (and scribbling a few of them down) as the band falls into its first cut from the new record, the elegant “Wine, Women, and Song”. As the hard plucks pop from the piano, it occurs to me that perhaps the band warmed us up with oldies because they’re worried no one knows the new tunes. As heads cock back and words ring on the audience’s lips, I see that, sadly, this isn’t the case. The old material now seems less a service to the listener, and more a way for the band to soothe its shattered nerves. After all, the world rejected a lot of what they had to say (many of these songs, from their second album, were never even played in New York), and the audience’s warm reception is proof positive that the band did in fact have something going, even if only a few people noticed.
That’s all well and good, but they’ve got something better going now. As a second new song follows the first, the vibe in room begins to shift. We’ve hopped from adrenaline rock to an indie-pop see-saw ride—it’s light, airy, and uplifting. I’ve gone from feeling the lazy days of adolescence to the confident air of adulthood: This new music reflects a maturity that the band’s earlier work, for all its intelligence, could never have attained.
All too soon, that feeling is lost, and and I’m a little kid again. The band continues to dig deep into its back catalog, scorching through old faves until 1 a.m. is an equally old memory. Ballads break across the PA, interrupted by rockers. Songs of my youth fly by, and I’m conjuring memories of rocking out in my bedroom, of mowing my parents’ lawn in the hot summer heat. I’m remembering cruising through town, trying for all I was worth to bring pimpability to my newly-acquired, but very much used minivan. Don’t get me wrong, when “Jack the Lion” lands, I welcome it: It’s warm and wonderful, like my mother’s warm embrace.
But then, I don’t let my mother hug me like that anymore. If we don’t break free of what birthed us (no matter how wonderful it was), we run the risk of remaining children. Sure, that’s okay for certain people—they peak in high school and then live happily in their parents’ house into old age—but some kids are just too good not to grow up.