College radio was big business in Athens, Ga., in the '80s and through the '90s. Between the label signing frenzy that snatched up R.E.M. and the B-52s, and the increased attention on the town that made indie stars of the Elephant 6 collective, there was hardly a college town in America that didn't utter some desire to be The Next Athens.
But Harvey Milk formed their band in the early '90s in what was still the current and reigning Athens, and that didn't do shit for them.
For one thing, the three Athenians started a metal band — and a really weird one at that. People were intrigued by Neutral Milk Hotel's weirdness because it involved this enigma of a man named Jeff Mangum. But people didn't really know what to make of Harvey Milk, a sludgy and at times near-noise band named after the country's first openly gay politician. Unfortunately, that meant that two of the best and strangest records made in all of the '90s went virtually unnoticed. My Love Is Higher Than Your Assessment of What My Love Can Be and Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men are thrilling, unpredictable and indescribable albums. And of all the Melvins-worshiping bands that have followed since, no one but the Melvins have been more Melvinsian. But Harvey Milk didn't do great things by just aping a great band — they stretched those dirges into chaotic and menacing pieces that shifted wildly, maybe into a string-laden passage of soft singing, or maybe into a full-on ZZ Top tribute.
The ZZ Top and classic rock influences informed their third album, Pleaser, marking a drastic shift in direction. Their first three albums garnered a fanatic cult following outside their hometown, even as those albums survived into the next decade only in out-of-print editions. The current renewed interest in the band has led to each album's re-release, but if you've got an original pressing of any of the trio, there are some folks in eBay-world who'd likely make you a triple-digit offer for each.
Before people finally started to take notice, though, Harvey Milk went on hiatus for seven years. During that time, doom metal — which wasn't all that far from what the band was doing in the first place — got pretty popular. There also came to be what purists would call "hipster metal," and since Harvey Milk were sometimes covering entire R.E.M. albums at live shows, an argument could be made that they were metal's first openly hipster band. None of that is really fair to Harvey Milk, though, as the "hipster metal" term is typically used dismissively at best, pejoratively at worst. But what the band did manage to do was bridge the growing gap between punk and metal in much more interesting ways than anyone else at the time — and if that makes them hipsters, there are certainly worse things to be.
In 2005, Harvey Milk got back together and released a new album called Special Wishes, which, in an interview with the Canadian magazine Exclaim!, singer and guitarist Creston Spiers calls the best album they've ever done, even as he points out — in true Harvey Milk bad luck form — it's nearly impossible to find anywhere.
Their luck changed in 2008 with Life ... The Best Game in Town, which finally found them on a label with distributive reach (Hydra Head) and, with maybe a little extra notoriety thrown their way on behalf of an Oscar-nominated film about the band's namesake, people finally started noticing Harvey Milk. Life appeared in numerous year-end music critic book reports and top 10 lists, but Spiers apparently can't accept that. In the same Exclaim! interview, Spiers states, "That's our suckiest record yet."
According to the All Music Guide review of A Small Turn of Human Kindness, Spiers (who worked as a music teacher during the band's hiatus) immediately started transcribing the latest album while on tour after hearing criticisms that Life was too easy-listening. The album's title is taken from the title of the opening track on the band's own debut album, so they seemed not-so-subtly to have signaled their intent to get weird again.
But Small Turn is less weird than it is unrelentingly dark. Gone is the cheeky humor that usually creeps into the mix. Instead, titles like "I Am Sick of All This Too" and "I Know This Is All My Fault" roll out with a uniform dedication to slow and bludgeoning doom. While the unpredictability and sheer otherworldliness of their earliest records make Life pale by comparison, Small Turn owes something of a debt to the second side of Black Flag's My War. Whether their best album yet or their suckiest, it's bleak, desperate and a far cry from any TV party.
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