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Harvey Milk - Life...The Best Game in Town

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Artist: Harvey Milk

Album: Life...The Best Game in Town

Label: Hydra Head

Review date: Sep. 11, 2008

The cover of Harvey Milk’s Life…The Best Game in Town features a snapshot of a wall bedecked with a string of Christmas lights, an Iron Maiden poster and a sombrero. At first glance, it seems a Vice-aesthetic mockery of the lifestyle of a suburbs-entrenched metal youth. Anyone foolish enough to look at this photo long enough, though, can see it as a sympathetic shot from this dude’s perspective: looking up at the wall above his bed, pondering his bleak existence while pounding Coors and listening to record upon record.

Either reading would make sense for Harvey Milk, a band that moves ably in and out of irony, from indie-rock labels to metal labels. Put another way, Life is the kind of record with two kinds of guitar solos. Creston Spiers, Steven Tanner, Paul Trudeau, Kyle Spence and now the inimitable Joe Preston nail the straightforward technical melodic blazer, but they also master the sort that borders on noise-rock, squealing, then chugging, then stalling out in a crushing mess of feedback, all over a metronomic drumbeat. It is unclear if any band besides Harvey Milk has ever made a record that does both with such strange success.

Life has a wholly predictable uniqueness. Anyone familiar with Harvey Milk’s discography - the weird, sludge-noise innovation of their early ’90s output and their similarly bizarre-in-its-lack-of-irony hard-rock album The Pleaser - would expect a 2008 Harvey Milk record to be a capable blend of the band’s varying directions. Yes, Life kind of sounds like different Harvey Milk phases tossed together - but that results in a sound unlike any other, including pre-Life Harvey Milk.

The first track, “Death Goes to the Winner,” has so many components, it veers close to prog. There’s a metal-baroque, fingerpicked, Christmas-disparaging part. There’s the churning, towering chorus wherein a listener learns that “Life is the best game in town and death goes to the winner”. There’s the guitar solo where one would expect a guitar solo, except that it devolves into wacked-out noise. Finally, Creston Spiers growls an allusion to the climax of the Beatles’ “A Day In the Life,” and the song ends in a mocking piano chord.

“Death Goes to the Winner” alone doesn’t capture Life’s mystique. That takes the subsequent track, “Decades,” a headbang-ready, straightforward stoner-rock jam. This lowering of the brow might look on paper like a hedge against intellectualism, but each and every moment of these two songs convinces. “Roses” metastasizes from a wispy, pseudo-sadness into a jarring wail, while on “Motown” bares it earnest emotional from the start, as lovely as music this brawny can be. The members of Harvey Milk display enough ability, humor and imagination to make these songs, and the transitions that link them, seem nothing less than coherent.

By Talya Cooper

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