15 June, 2013

The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (The Band), Episode 1: My Love Is Higher Than Your Assessment of What My Could Be

A Sound Design and Assembly Original Miniseries
Produced by M. Martin
Tonight: 1994's My Love Is Higher Than Your Assessment of What My Love Could Be
Written by Charlie Pauken

My Love Is Higher Than Your Assessment of What My Love Could Be is arguably the first Harvey Milk record, and I say arguably because technically, the first Harvey Milk record is the self-titled one (aka "the Bob Weston one"), and the first three and a half minutes of the record, which is only the first half of the album opener, "A Small Turn of Human Kindness", combined with the front cover would probably make those unfamiliar with the band think that they just bought a damned art school record: It's a pastiche of china cymbal, a tape flub, a false-start on an electric piano than an arpeggiated chord repeated over and over on said electric piano, cymbal swells and fluttering slide guitar work, the odd bass chord for good measure after a brief tom-tom solo that leads to a sonorous, droning cello. That's all in the first three and a half minutes, in that order.
But the thing is that it's not some dick-off attempt at music concrete. No. This was orchestrated that way. (Creston Spiers, the front man for the band is? was? a high school music teacher.) From there, the song moves into just the very stripe of dirge metal that casual fans usually cite when referring to them as a stoner metal or sludge metal or doom metal band or when people make the half-assed comparison to the Melvins, a band that lives to piss people off and revels in its own in-joke-ness even as they phone it in. Harvey Milk, however, are beyond any of that nonsense. So earnest in their work and composition are they that I'd go so far as to piss you off and suggest that this is a jazz band playing heavy music that sounds nothing like jazz. (Sorry, I watched all twenty hours of Ken Burns: Jazz last week.) There's real passion for song and consideration for arrangement in this music, mon petit illiterati, and even when shit gets weird, you can tell they're getting weird not for the sole sake of getting weird but because if they didn't get weird, the song would be incomplete. So it's necessary, just absolutely goddamned vital to the existence of all eight and a quarter minutes of "A Small Turn of Human Kindness", to have four movements to the song, in a linear, rollercoaster fashion of quiet weirdness, loud asphyxyiating dirge, quiet somber weirdness, and a loud mid-tempo recall of the opening movement played flawlessly on the bass by Steven Tanner replete with a one note guitar solo courtesy of Creston.
Hello. This band's name is Harvey Milk. You probably missed the part where this was an instrumental.
After that brief tutorial in what the hell to expect from now the hell on, you can hang with "Women Dig It" where, after a lengthy, crawling drum intro courtesy of Paul Trudeau, you are finally treated to the sound of Creston's voice. And I won't lie: I was turned off at first, you might be as well. Trust me, the man can sing, we'll get to that later, but here it is a pained and pitchless howl, the kind of screaming any singer worth their salt would kill to be able to do. It's gruff, broken, rough around every edge, but it aint Tom Waits's signature rasp, if I dare say it, it's closer to Louis Armstrong. That kind of gruffness. It is the sound of a man who is absolutely determined to empty his lung capacity with each syllable. It is not the sound of a voice, it is the sound of a man pushing air out of his body in a manner that has to pass by vocal chords to do so. In short, it's power. And as that voice grew on me, I realized that it was the sound of power. (Hyperbole!)
The third and fourth songs rank among my three favorites on this record. The third song on this record is "The Anvil Will Fall", one of the most pained and beautiful songs I've ever heard. It showcases classical / jazz guitar structures and delicate, lilting singing. You can hear the words here, and this is one of the very things I like about Harvey Milk as a "metal band": They don't deal with subject matter that is typical metal. There's no doom and gloom, there's no Satan, there are no bongs or easy lays or hard times on the road. Here are the opening lyrics:
My mama's first love was a vile ex-Marine
But the blood and guts in her heart could have washed Pilate's hands clean
Her lips were like an anvil dropped from a cliff
The fall had almost killed him and then that anvil hit
Who writes lyrics like that? Jesus, did you read those? And then, after a big distorted clanger, the band samples Gustav Holt's "The Planets: Jupiter: The Bringer of Jollity" and has this choker-upper of a line: "Let my love be the lantern that guides your ship through night." Again, who writes lyrics like that? And then, even after repeated listens, I can't tell if they used a pitch-shifter on Creston's voice or if they brought in a child singer to hit the soprano notes at the end of that passage and I could give a flying fuck either way. It's goddamned moving. And to cap off this big sweeping emotion-fest? The most bombastic piece of metal music you've ever laid ears on, one big soaring crescendo over and over again with that pained howl pushing all that goddamned air out to sing, "Your love is like an anvil, cold and black as me." It's enough to make me want to strip naked and jump off a cliff. (Hyperbole!)
I mean, let's get right down to it: If you don't like this band, we seriously have to reassess our friendship.
And then the band switches gears for the fourth song, "Merlin is Magic", which, seriously, is the sound of joy. I can't put this shit into words. Fuck. Damnit. Just trust me on this, OK? "Merlin is Magic" is seriously the sound of happiness. What fucking metal band plays the sound of happiness? None. Not a damned one. I mean this song... fuck. It's like this, when I saw Harvey Milk at the Triple Rock two summers back, I made it a point to shake Creston's hand after the set (he was the last guy on stage) and say, "Thanks for playing 'Merlin is Magic', that's one of my favorites."
Yeah, am I some sort of creepy super-fan? No, I just love the shit out of this band. So there. When was the last time you loved a band?
After that, you have "My Father's Life's Work" which begins as a gentle lullaby with doubled guitars and harmonized vocals and then moves into quite possibly the loudest the blues have ever been played. And even as the "low point" on the record, it's hardly a misstep. And it could hardly be considered generic. Maybe it's just that it's a straightforward rock number after two of the most unique and stirring rock songs ever composed. (Yes. Composed.)
"Where The Bee Sucks, There Suck I" is a master class in tumultuous, swirling arpeggios - and not the Dave Mustaine variety, either, no, think Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie - played over and over again at break neck speed by the guitar and bass simultaneously, basically the sound of whiplash. Like I said, some folks lump Harvey Milk in with sludge and stoner and doom but if they had paid some actual attention, they'd see that this band works outside of those categories more frequently than they work within them. Take "Jim's Polish", for example. The acoustic guitar intro on that sounds like something that should have been on Led Zeppelin I, a piece of classical, Segovia-via-Page-esque work and then, yeah, OK, so it moves on to the big goddamned metal-fuck-you music. At first it's a dirge, then it's another Indy 500 time trial. It should be interesting to note that when the band play slow, they play incredibly slow and break everything down to the bare minimum of chords needed and play just as much with silence as they do with sound; when they play fast, they'll convince you that they have seven fingers on their left hands. It aint wankery, though, it's exactly the notes that need to be there; again, I'll bring in Bird Parker and Gillespie. Every band should want to be this heavy, sure, but - and this is the most important part - every band should want to be this smart.
"F.S.T.P.", for all the Melvins comparers out there, sounds closer to Shellac than anything else. You want to make comparisons, buster? There. I gave you the right one. And then there's the dissonance of the thing... Within each thrust of the dissonant chord blasts that break up the silent rests, there are the harmonics that ring out that shape a collection of chiming sounds, making the blasts of noise palatable. The length of the song, twelve and three quarter minutes, is only made to feel excruciatingly longer by the start-stop pulse of the song which, to casual listeners, make the song seem almost tuneless until the eight twenty mark when the song shifts into its melodic second movement. And, really, there's no other way to describe the sections in these songs than "movements".
And you want to get your weird on? Then look. The fuck. Out, hoss. Because you know how we're ending this shindig? With "All the Live Long Day", a retelling of the twelve apostles as a John Henry-esque rail crew. This is the one I tell everybody about, and is the third of my favorites on this record. The opening is a repeated, distorted bass note, some drums, but at the very forefront is a sledgehammer pounding a pipe while Creston rattles off the biblical names and the various tasks they perform: surveying, laying ties and setting rails, tapping spikes... You know, what a rail crew does. Again, the material being mined here isn't typical metal bullshit. It's brainy, it's inventive, it's out there, it's fun and godawful beautiful. And we're only a third of the way into the song. After that, can you guess what happens? Yeah, the heavy gets brought, son. A great big nasty lurching heavy, the kind that's almost fuck-to-able. It pulses and lurches and throbs and just gets down to biscuits (yes, I meant to say "biscuits" instead of "business" because, come on, biscuits) making the most heavy, clattering use of only two notes since Big Black's "Steelworker" (to be clear, I'm talking about the Pig Pile version, not the Lungs version).
Now, while I would start off any Harvey Milk virgin with Special Wishes, you won't get hurt or be disappointed by My Love Is Higher Than Your Assessment of What My Love Could Be. In fact, if you're nerdy about music and bands and records and want to trace Harvey Milk's evolution, than this is, obviously, the one to start with. It's a perfect balance of weird and heavy and smart and it commands every bit of your attention.

Next time on "The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (The Band)...
1996's Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men

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