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Seattle's Harvey Danger may be too smart for its own good.

By Micheal Powell

OCTOBER 5, 1998:  One of the paradoxes that rock critics who cross the line between chronicler and performer must face is the cynical and analytic vision required to review pop music for a living. To make music it is necessary to believe in one's instincts and imagination, traits that are all but ruined by the day-to-day dissection of creative efforts into components, tracing them back to their sources and commenting on the merits thereof.

For the most part, writers try not to suck in public - there's too much at stake: honor, credibility and the potential blasting by peers in both worlds--but that doesn't mean many possess the talent to surpass the mediocrity they're so quick to deride in others. Some do have the mettle to make the move: Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan, producer/musician/gadfly Steve Albini and even the Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant all got their critical license before their conversion experience.

Enter Harvey Danger. The Seattle quartet's members, vocalist Sean Nelson, guitarist Jeff Lin, bassist Aaron Huffman and drummer Aaron Sult were members of the local press before they jumped ship and formed a band in 1992. Six years later Harvey Danger has seen its song, the stick-in-your-head "Flagpole Sitta," ("I'm not sick/but I'm not well" - you know the song) from their album Where have all the merrymakers gone?, enter the Billboard Top Ten and give the group a bonafide hit along with a little professional gratification.

"When we started out, we didn't have a sound other than the sound of four inept musicians," Nelson, a former assistant editor and music critic at the Seattle weekly The Stranger, says. "We really started the band to learn how to play our instruments."

That was six years ago, when the grunge moment was at its creative (but not yet commercial) peak, and artists with a poppier bent (The Posies, The Dandy Warhols, Elliot Smith and even Harvey Danger) were seen as pariahs in their native Pacific Northwest. But with grunge's implosion in the mid-'90s and the commercialization of "alternative" youth culture, these bands, who were busy pairing intelligent lyrics with catchy tunesmithing, found themselves suddenly in demand.

"It's kind of wild," Nelson says in regards to the group's breakout success. "It was great the way it happened in Seattle, which came after a good 4 1/2 years of having no attention paid to us at all. We just kind of kept our heads down made music, and all of the sudden everybody started caring."

Sensing, as astute music critics should, that the winds of change were shifting direction, Harvey Danger initially cut "Merrymakers" in 1996 as a cassette demo. The group then signed with minuscule label Arena Rock Records that year and released the work on cd. In 1997 the band was picked up by major player Slash/London. But it took Seattle radio station KNDD, which added "Flagpole Sitta" to its playlist after getting a flood of requests, to get the ball rolling for the wayward journalists. Subsequently, MTV and modern rock radio throughout the country followed suit and immediately put it into heavy rotation. Not bad "for a bunch of demos," Nelson says. "They're not fleshed out sonically or otherwise. ... It's a strong little album, but it's very humble as well."

Been around the world and found that only stupid people are breeding/the cretins are cloning and feeding/and I don't even own a tv - from "Flagpole Sitta" The other paradox facing journalists looking for a Harvey Danger-like career change is that sometimes they're too smart for their own good. A satirical song like "Flagpole Sitta," which jabs at the indulgences of twentysomething angst, can often be misinterpreted by those it seeks to chastise. Nada Surf's "Popular" and Frank and Moon Zappa's "Valley Girl" both had fun at the expense of certain groups of people, yet many listeners failed to interpret the parody and wore these digs as a badge of honor.

"It's meant to be a parody of that thinking, but people take it literally,"ŹNelson says. "I can't control that."

There is also a risk that a song so catchy and smirky like "Flagpole Sitta" puts Harvey Danger at risk of being a mere flash-in-the-pan novelty. "I think it's hard to be accepted when you incorporate humor into something passionate," Nelson says. "But there will always be more to the music if you really have something to say. I can't tell you precisely what we are trying to say. But I know it's something."

Spoken like a true critic.


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