[2 September 2014]
If Harvey Milk ever felt too uplifting and touchy feely to you, then Music Blues is exactly what you’ve been seeking. The first solo project of Harvey Milk bassist Stephen Tanner uses almost the same palette as his longtime band – slow, lumbering noise rock with the uneasy sense of falling off the rails at any moment – yet manages to sound bleaker and darker and more disheartened. It’s a depressing record to listen to, but not entirely so as there is a dark, dark humor that bubbles up on occasion. Unfortunately, those moments only shine a brighter light on what’s missing from Things Haven’t Gone Well.
From the opening notes of “91771” (Tanner’s day of birth) the template is set; heavy fuzz guitar, rumbling bass, crashing cymbals, and primitive, pounding percussion. This short triumphalist blast of a song is a herald of the troubles ahead, as it fades away wanly, meek and forlorn, only for the slow, dirge-like “Premature Caesarean Removal Delivery” to take it’s place. It’s as if on this autobiographical record Tanner thought the highpoint was before he arrived. The use of “removal delivery” instead of birth is the kind of pitch black comedy he employs; it’s funny, but never in a ha-ha kind of way. More like a sick grin of recognition flashed to people with a similar mindset. How else to explain “Teach the Children”, where the pitch-shifted intonations of Crosby, Stills, and Nash lyrics play over a simple beat and incredibly low-mixed guitar for an increasingly uncomfortable 51 seconds? The only vocals on the album and they’re straight from a child’s nightmare.
The bad dreams and bad vibes continue, track after track. That Cheshire Cat smile – wry, knowing and disturbing – guides the listener, if only for a while. “Trying and Giving Up” is as cheery as the title sounds, but when the knowingly inept guitar solo kicks in it’s easy to think Tanner is taking the piss out of both himself and his audience. But all too soon the smile fades, and, like a children’s story, is put aside for more serious matters.
Sometimes, that works on Things Haven’t Gone Well. When he drops his dark, winking humor on stand-out track “The Great Depression” the result is devastating. The unyielding, trebly buzz overwhelms; the drums and cymbals strike yet change nothing. A modulating, secondary lower pitched guitar tries to cut through, only to fail and disappear. Nothing can pierce the buzzing treble. It’s one of the most succinct and powerful evocation of what depression can feel like ever put to tape.
The rest of the record can’t match it, and sadly replaces the sly humor of the early tracks for a melancholy seriousness. If this is the signal of adulthood, it’s an unfortunate one. Lacking humor and playfulness, the second half of the album becomes a bit of a drag. It serves far too often to remind the listener what else is missing from this record: the rest of Harvey Milk. “It’s Not Going to Get Better” and “Tremendous Misery Set In” feel like backing tracks, not complete songs unto themselves. They scream out for Creston Spiers to scream out, for his bilious bellow to carry them to heights they can’t reach alone. One could say that’s the point; as an adult, Tanner wrote music for Harvey Milk, and thus his autobiographical album would logically become achingly similar to his band’s work. The point isn’t missed, even if the band most certainly is.
In the end, Things Haven’t Gone Well is a record of lowest, heart-rending lows and sadly middling highs. While a darkly comical start and a harrowing centerpiece make Music Blues’ debut worth hearing, the album ultimately serves as a reminder of the greatness and absence of Harvey Milk. There’s no one that can do what they collectively did, not even the band members themselves.