Harvey Milk – A Small Turn of Human Kindness
A Small Turn of Human Kindness (Hydra Head, 2010) might be Harvey Milk's perfect album. Despite Creston Spiers' Southern humility and Stephen Tanner's self-deprecation, Harvey Milk want to swallow the universe and spit it back out as a masterpiece. Such ambition led them to obscurity their first time out. Now riding a wave of resurgent popularity, they're still aiming high, and everything they do best shines like never before: the primitive crunch, the classical sweep, the emoting of a mentally handicapped man that just got dumped and his foot run over in the same gesture - it's all there in its undiluted majesty. Essentially one long piece, this is a sludge rock opera. The record starts with no fanfare, sparse and elemental. Gradually making its way from dirt-simple stabs of heavy guitar to a genuinely proggy keyboard interlude in "I Know This Is All My Fault", Spiers and co. traverse the primitive and the sophisticated like few can. That track is about the most harmonically fancy thing you'll hear on a non-classical record all year. For all the dabbling we find in the pop world, Harvey Milk don't get enough credit for bringing it legit while maintaining subtlety.
Like the last Hydra Head release I reviewed, I find myself asking, "Is this a metal album?" Well, sort of. It's heavy, it's distorted, it's tuned low, but its goals are not that like those of a metal record. It focuses on narrative over riffs. That narrative is a complex and moving story of domestic dysfunction, reconciliation, and a man's growth into the roles of partner and father. Spiers' singular voice sounds fantastically demented throughout. Walt Whitman's "barbaric yawp" is an apt descriptor. Past the massive guitars and the pained vocals, the cinematic storytelling of Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen are the best references for this music. Like those artists, Harvey Milk's music is a perpetually dynamic backdrop deftly woven into their stories.
It's heartening to see that Harvey Milk have gotten as far as they have with their uncompromising sound intact. Even in today's musical climate, a moan from an animal caught in a trap can be a victory lap.