22 June, 2013

The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (The Band), Episode 2: Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men

A Sound Design and Assembly Original Miniseries
Produced by M. Martin
Tonight: 1996's Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men
Written by Charlie Pauken
Question: What begins with a low ominous piano chord and some accelerating tinkling then just changes gears into a high-pitched bee-sting guitar note and snare drum that sound simultaneously and speed up (that eventually inform Shellac's brilliant "End of Radio") to come to the sound of a blue whale dropped from a hundred miles up into the oceanic pole of inaccessibility? Harvey Milk's second full length, the double album, Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men.
This was the first full Harvey Milk record I ever heard and jeeze Louise, Doc, it killed Einstein.
By the time Creston actually gets around to his birth-of-a-monster howl, six minutes and six seconds have passed. They're playing with pitch, they're playing with silence, they're playing with tempo... "Pinnochio's Example" is already a big damned brain fuck of a song, and then it changes up again with soft, battered whisper-sung lyrics about crafting Pinnochio from Geppetto's perspective over quietly strummed guitar, bass, and table-saw whirring in the background. This is the first ten and a half minutes of this record.
And then, ever so seamlessly, Spiers and Tanner easily bring us into "Brown Water" with delicate and gentle interplay before the whole band brings the heavy back. Few things are as epic as the things Harvey Milk manage to pull off, and "Brown Water", while admittedly samey and even a bit overwrought in its seemingly never-ending crescendos, plays to the band's talent for sweeping grandiosity: It's a straightforward arena rock lighter-flicker. Most bands would close their records with this one, Harvey Milk are just closing out side A. There are still three more sides to this fucking thing.
"Plastic Eggs" is just everything you've ever wanted in the sound of stoned evil. Electric Wizard wish they wrote "Plastic Eggs", OK? It's like that. But it's by the time we get to "Plastic Eggs" that the realization begins to set in that the diversity, humor, emotion, and sex that appeared on '94's My Love... may be just playing navigator in the passenger seat. So those elements are still up front, they're still guiding the way, but it's definitely the stoner element in the driver's seat here. And, brother, that cloud of dope smoke is thick; you may as well be inside the bong by the time you hear the opening dirge of "My Broken Heart Will Never Mend", a carefully timed, unsyncopated, right on the damned quarter note piece of heavy metal music that alternates between lumbering bullying and more grandiose, ascending, just-on-the-tip-of-"Space Oddity"-era-Mick Ronson guitar soloing that starts big and mean, becomes something utterly beautiful, and, for the briefest of moments, becomes its own lullaby before getting back into the big crashing business and the beautiful solos. Really, this is a song chock full of juxtapositions that in the hands of less competent bands (read: any other band) would be considered contradictions.
Have you been keeping score? Because we just went through four songs and we closed out sides A and B. Now we're on side C with "I Feel Miserable", an absolutely beautiful piece of dual guitar strumming that is so plaintive and calming that you'd have to wonder why it's called what it is. The warts and all production on this number, with audible amplifier buzz and hum, do not diminish the simple elegance of the work here. It's as if that little navigator in the passenger seat we talked about earlier is making more concrete decisions in terms of where to steer this record. Especially when we get to "The Lord's Prayer", which is simply Creston singing in that battered whisper of his over a simple piano arrangement. By this point, it's easy to suss out why these numbers weren't intermingled with the heavier songs: They are so quiet and understated that to sandwich them between all the previous heaviness would've made them sound out of place rather than showcased. They needed a stage of their own. And you'd think this theme would continue with "Sunshine (No Sun) Into the Sun", judging by that song's intro, but no. It's a brief intro of almost Donovan-esque acoustic guitar before the band get back into that towering Juggernaut business, the musical equivalent of the killing machine at the end of Caligula.
The better part of "Sunshine (No Sun) Into the Sun" is the sound of fucking dread. It's the worst, most paranoid acid trip you've ever had squared. And, at the same time, it's almost a little comical: You can hear the bass notes bending and sliding as though they were manipulated by tape machine's varispeed control and you'd think the guitar was down-tuned beyond belief with how much you can hear the strings slap around on the fretboard. And there's enough tape experimentation on this between the overdubbed guitar solos and flourishes of Mission of Burma tape sounds cutting in and out of the mix that save this song from being simply a scary animal and make it something genuinely appealing. One of Harvey Milk's finer moments? Well... No. But if they had just played this song straight, it would hardly be any fun. And it certainly wouldn't be smart.
"Go Back to France". Fuck, what can I say about "Go Back to France"? If you don't love the multiple drum kits on "Go Back to France" and all the whacked out Björk-via-music-concrete tape experiments, you are clearly not my age and you did not have a crush on Dina from Salute Your Shorts... Or the short version: I can't say for certain that you're human. You're probably the kind of twat that has a Whitney Houston best-of in your cassette collection next to the Phil Collins best-of cassette. You probably have the musical sensibility of someone whose never picked up an instrument and considers Poison to be the pinnacle of eighties music. Thus, I can't talk to you.
"A Good Thing Gone" starts off as another big slab of stoner metal before a brief sampling of an answering machine tape and then there's some church organ and then there's a vocal solo before getting back to business. It's as weird and beautiful and heavy as anything else Harvey Milk do, but on a record of this length, it's almost tiring at this point. But when we get to "One of Us Cannot Be Wrong", a Leonard Cohen inspired piece for acoustic guitar and voice, [EDIT, 2 July, 2013: Yes, it's a Leonard Cohen inspired piece, because it's a Leonard Cohen song.] we have a strong ballad that brings the listener in closer and enjoy the truly intimate feel that would be heard later on the bootleg of Creston's appearance at the Caledonia Lounge in Athens, GA, performing mostly Leonard Cohen songs (whom, I believe, he said was his favorite songwriter).
And that's where we encounter the issue with the double LP: It's a work out to get through one. You need to have nothing to do but sit around with a six-pack if you really want to pay attention to it. And it gets worse when you have to review it and really pay attention to it. Fuck, man, if I ever try to review The Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime, I think I'll be ready to be put out to pasture. I mean, you can hate how I write when I review records all you want, you try to sit here an analyze (with a light and jovial tone full of vulgarity) a double LP sometime. All of it. Song by song. Even though I like this record, I still want a Vicodin right now. Just the mild one, 5mg hydrocodone, 500mg acetominophen.
"The Boy with Bosoms" closes things out and, damn, if I aint ready for this thing to close out. Again, I like this record but I'm ready to go the fuck outside. "The Boy with Bosoms" is another one in the Harvey Milk canon that juxtaposes heaviness and gentle passages but it's also an interesting entry into their canon for the fact that these elements are now blended more fully with each other rather than simply going heavy-gentle-heavy. As the tumult occurs, there is gentle singing and organ sounding. (Heh, I said "organ sounding".) (Was that joke too obscure?) I dare say that for where Harvey Milk were at this stage in their evolution, this is perhaps the most fully realized of their works. They would go on to ditch a lot of the showcased special instrumentation later on but they would remain fully weird, the kind of band Hunter S. Thompson would have probably hated but also appreciated. They ran counter to convention more than any band they were compared to. They were smart and only got smarter, and played as simply as they played complicated. They were at times as simple as the Modern Lovers and other times had more layers to their songs than The Downward Spiral. They gave not a fuck about whether people liked them and even doubted that people did but still aimed to put out the best things on wax that they'd always wanted to hear but never got out of their favorites. "The Boy with Bosoms", for this era of Harvey Milk is the ultimate expression of those conflicts as it melds them together - the heavy, the gentle, the weird, the sexy, the pained, the beautiful, the apathy, the doubt... OK, so I'm getting lofty in my praise again but, really, this song is the last of a particular era of Harvey Milk. They would go on to record The Pleaser after this; a collection of uptempo arena rock songs they concocted because they were going to tour with Melvins and did not want to be compared to the guys who were making weirdo sludge metal a decade before them that they so erroneously got compared to.
OK. OK. OK. Fuck you. Fuck you, I'll say it: Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men is the new White Album. Tell me I'm wrong, I'll shrug. When I ask for a genre redefining record as far as experimental stoner metal goes, what are you going to point me to? Some pussy-assed bullshit like Rated R? Motherfucker, I have a copy of Rated R. "Nicotine valium vicodin marijuana ecstasy and alcohol", right, got it. What the fuck ever, guy. "Ooh, Josh Homme cribbed a line from a Björk song!" Get the fuck out of here with that. It's fluff. (And I say that as a guy who likes that record.) Who sampled Gustav Holt on their first goddamned record? And not because they could but because they had to because that was the only way the song worked? No. No. You want a real goddamned time? You want something that actual inspires you? You want something to move you to fucking tears? Something that will change your life for the better? Something that feels as good as the first time you heard Ramones or Television or Nirvana (I said it) or Led Zeppelin I or the opening notes of "Black Sabbath" or when David Yow went "Ho!" at the beginning of "Boilermaker" or when you throw the horns and scream along when Lemmy sings, "That's the way I like it, baby, I don't want to live forever!" or those beautiful stunted tom-tom beats at the beginning of "Ether" (my brother Joe knows what I'm talking about)? You do yourself right and march your sexy ass to the record store and you pick up a goddamned Harvey Milk record.
Hallelujah, holy shit, where's the Tylenol?

Next time on "The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (The Band)...
Either part two of 1996's Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men by M. Martin or 1997's The Pleaser
Stay tuned...

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