I’m no stranger to sad boys. There were about four years of my life from age 15 to 19 when I exclusively listened to Elliott Smith. When I was 14 I fell in love with Nirvana, not because they were heavy or wrote bad ass, idiosyncratic pop songs, though they certainly were and definitely did, but because Kurt Cobain was a chronically unhappy, maladjusted Pisces with an attitude problem who blew his head off with a shotgun. These were my role models as a teenager.
Harvey Dentures seem to understand people like Elliott Smith, Kurt Cobain and me. The first track on their highly underrated 2016 release “Guilt Trip” is called “Bad Attitude” and it could have been written about Kurt, Elliott or any disillusioned, suicide-fixated death rocker, including myself. Singer and songwriter Mike “Puffington” Maynard belts “find yourself a loser to love, it’s gonna be real easy and fun” just as crunchy, fuzz laden guitars swirl around a laid-back groove. He exhorts us to “never mind reality’s calls, she just hangs up or says nothing at all” while the rest of the band emphasizes his point.
Harvey Dentures makes me nostalgic for being a teenager again. Not because primary songwriter Mike Maynard grew up in the same bleak, industrial suburban-sprawl hellscape I did, twenty miles southeast of Chicago in Northwest Indiana, though that’s certainly part of it. It has more to do with the fact that their music brings me back to a time when all my social cues and life ambitions could be drawn from the albums I listened to– when music seemed to be the only thing I was learning from.
At its heart, “Guilt Trip” is a collection of pretty pop songs, but with the lyrical voice of whoever your favorite songwriter was when you were 15, whether it was Conor Oberst, Elliott Smith or Ryan Adams. These songs are filtered through a band that sounds like the members of Pavement and Pinback got together and started covering Dinosaur Jr songs together. There are sublime moments of guitar shredding beauty, such as the tail end of pop gem “Julianne.” There are heartbreaking love songs written in the key of nostalgia such as the insanely cute “PB&C” where Maynard sings about a relationship where he and his partner made love and then ate peanut butter and celery for breakfast.
These are the kind of beautifully specific details that give songs living, beating hearts, and you can tell this guy not only wears his heart on his sleeve, but also probably has it tattooed on his face. Second song “Eco Night” relates a true to life experience at a Chicago DIY space over one of the bands strongest riffs.
The second to last song “Stay Home” starts with a chord progression Elliott would be proud of as tasteful piano flourishes compliment the descending guitars. About a minute in, lead guitarist Anthony Santoro lets loose as drummer Max Petot opens up the song with some pummeling riffage. About halfway through, the song turns on its head and finds its emotional center. Singer Mike Maynard tells the object of his animosity: “Since you left me I’ve gotten less sad/ Yeah you left me, please don’t come back.” But we are not entirely sure we believe that.
It’s almost like he’s using this song to convince himself he feels that way, and the result is one of the best tracks on the record. We know you’re a sad boy at heart Mike! And if getting less sad means you stop writing songs this good, then by all means, stay sad.
The album closes with my favorite song, “Smooth”, a simple groove with some beautiful pop hooks where Maynard tells us he needs “a drink, some fame and company” with the same breath and then says “oh fuck it I’m a bum, a lush, it just ain’t cool with me,” and the gorgeous harmonies have never made apathy sound more sweet.
Harvey Dentures made a great record that kind of flew under the radar in 2016, but this album is a very pretty testament to the power of bummer pop. At its heart, Harvey Dentures is a pop band that knows how to rock, and their songwriting quite economically demonstrates that they know how to get their hearts broken and make the best of it. Blast this record while you’re driving aimlessly around after you get broken up with, and cry in your beer (or San Pellegrino) with Harvey Dentures.
For fans of: Pavement, Pinback, Bayside, Elliott Smith, Bright Eyes, Heatmiser