With the surprise success of their debut album Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone? and the ironically anthemic hit "Flagpole Sitta," Harvey Danger established itself as a refreshingly iconoclastic musical entity, deftly balancing melodic songcraft and emotional complexity. The Seattle quartet takes its unpigeonholeable blend of pop savvy, restless inventiveness and fierce insight into challenging new territory on its much-anticipated sophomore release, King James Version. Recorded in Bearsville, New York and in the group's hometown with respected studio vet John Goodmanson (who also produced their first album), King James Version finds Harvey Danger effortlessly broadening its musical and lyrical horizons, confirming the foursome's status as one of America's most consistently challenging young rock bands.
"The main theme of this album, I think, is the conflict between faith and skepticism," observes frontman/lyricist Sean Nelson. That philosophical dichotomy lends a haunting resonance to breezy, pointedly humorous tunes like "Sad Sweetheart of the Rodeo" and "Meetings With Remarkable Men (Show Me The Hero)," as well as such bittersweet numbers as "Why I'm Lonely" and "Pike St./Park Slope," not to mention edgy, intense creations like "Authenticity" and "Humility on Parade." Elsewhere, the group applies its interpretive skills to "Underground," a radically-rearranged cover of a song by the Seattle band This Busy Monster.
Alongside its dynamic compositions and impassioned performances, King James Version also boasts ambitiously expansive arrangements, several of which feature string arrangements by the classically-trained Jeff Lin, along with guest appearances by such alt-pop notables as Grant Lee Phillips of Grant Lee Buffalo fame, Posies member Ken Stringfellow, noted indie-pop auteur Lois Maffeo, Marc Olsen of Sage, and Death Cab For Cutie member Ben Gibbard.
King James Version's seamless merging of head and heart didn't come without some awkward growing pains. The album's birth cycle was interrupted by corporate upheavals that threw the band's label status into a state of temporary uncertainty. That delay proved to be a blessing in disguise, allowing Harvey Danger to sidestep the standard sophomore slump and approach the album with a fresh perspective, resulting in a consistently compelling collection that's simultaneously more varied and more focused than its predecessor.
"This record started out as a pretty dour, anti-pop record, but it evolved into something with a much wider expressive range," Nelson notes. "It started with a big rush to get into the studio, and then, when we thought it was finished, the music industry kind of imploded, and suddenly we were sitting around for a long time waiting to see what was going to happen. That ended up giving us a whole second gestation period, where we were able to loosen up and reenter our actual lives and figure out how we really felt about things, and the music started to sound different as a result of that. It also gave us a long time to tinker and write new songs and revise the album until we were sure that we were really happy with it. That's really what the title refers to - coming through a convoluted process and arriving at a version of the album and the band that feels sort of definitive."
In addition to its expanded sonic palette, King James Version also finds Nelson taking a more adventurous approach to his lyrics, incorporating role-playing and pop-culture references. "This time, there's more in the way of character study than autobiographical revelation," says the singer. "A lot of the songs are very personal, but they're not autobiographical. There are a lot of different devices, like having multiple narrators, or lyrics that are dialogues, or songs where the narrator's unreliable. I got comfortable with the idea of letting the lyrics be a little confusing or ambiguous if necessary."
Harvey Danger was originally founded as an informal combo by Jeff Lin and Aaron Huffman-whose unconventional melodic and rhythmic interplay remains the core of the band's sound-in the Spring of 1992, while the two were attending the University of Washington. Drummer Evan Sult joined the following year, bringing with him fellow student Sean Nelson. Over the next several years, the quartet played around Seattle, maintaining a small but enthusiastic audience. In early 1996, Sean slipped a tape to respected local producer/engineer John Goodmanson (Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney) who agreed to do a one-day demo session at his studio, John and Stu's Place. The resulting recordings caught the ear of London Records, which commissioned another set of demos before passing on the band.
After London staffer Greg Glover overheard the tracks being played in the office and offered Harvey Danger a berth on his own indie label, The Arena Rock Recording Co. (Superdrag, Home,Elf Power), which eventually combined some of the demos with five newly-recorded tracks to assemble the full-length Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone?, which initially appeared in July 1997 as a hand-screened, hand-packaged limited-edition release. With minimal promotion, the indie release reached the lower reaches of the CMJ 200 and received considerable underground acclaim. By the end of 1997, extensive college radio exposure began to translate into music-industry buzz, with "Flagpole Sitta" eventually becoming the most requested song on the influential Los Angeles station KROQ. Soon, major labels began offering deals, but the group decided to forego a bidding war and quickly signed to London Records, where Glover had been promoted to A&R rep. London released a remastered, repackaged edition of Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? in late April 1998, and almost immediately struck a chord with the public, with "Flagpole Sitta" becoming one of the summer's defining hits.
"When the first record got all the attention it got, we were really caught off guard," Nelson admits. "It was totally disorienting and confusing, and some of it was really fun and some of it was really terrible. But we're all really glad we did it, and I think we're stronger for the experience."
During the enforced hiatus that accompanied King James Version's protracted gestation, the members of Harvey Danger kept busy with a variety of musical and nonmusical pursuits. Nelson directed his first short film and acted in a couple of local plays. Huffman worked on extracurricular recording project and pursued his interest in painting and design. Sult moonlighted in the local band Pezzonovante while working extensively in graphic design.
Additionally, Nelson and Huffman each launched his own independent label to release recordings by their Seattle scenemates; Nelson founded Phonograph Records with the release of a 7" single by Rat Cat Hogan, while Huffman started Magic Palace Recordings to issue a full-length album by Peter Parker.
With King James Version's gestation period having finally yielded distinctly impressive results, Harvey Danger has augmented its stage lineup with the addition of a pair of Seattle musicians, guitarist Mike Squires of the Nevada Bachelors and keyboardist John Roderick of the Western State Hurricanes.
"We're not particularly worried about whether any of the songs from this album will become hits like 'Flagpole Sitta,'" Nelson concludes. "It's not that we don't want to be successful, but it has to be for the right reasons. The point is to make a piece of work that is lasting and truthful, and if success doesn't come as a result of doing that, it's pointless."