The Harvey Girls are a good natured, self-deprecating husband-and-wife duo from Lawrence, Kansas, whose low-key demeanor often obscures excellent pop songwriting skills and inspired cut-and-paste production.
Previous releases 2003’s The Biggest Book You’ll Never Read and 2004’s Blabber and Smoke leaned a little heavier on the roomy, hip-hoppy production (Prince Paul is a cited influence). But on The Wild Farewell, the Girls serve up – count ‘em! – 19 songs that feature some aspect of nearly every corner of the pop sphere, from bouncy grooves to bloodless, mechanized beats, melodies alternately sultry and bubblegummy, soulful exuberance and bookish reserve. Best of all is that Melissa Rodenbeek and Hiram Lucke sound like hungry, undiscriminating pop fans who’ve managed to mash up a couple of decades’ worth of musical history and alchemize it into their own sound with hooks, humor, and a coziness that comes from finding your artistic niche and sharing it with your significant other. Songwriting team with benefits, if you like.
Though the sparseness of the production and the mellow, modest vocals tempt me to call this lo-fi, there’s really nothing lo about the Harvey girls’ fi. The Wild Farewell is actually a fine headphone record aside from its melodic assets. The incredibly tiny drum machine tapping out the beat behind the layers of organ and guitar on the quietly driving “Practicing” is a good example of the Harvey Girl’s modest approach. The duo has a great sense of proportion and knows when to unveil a miniscule detail in the mix, consistently subtle and confident in letting the song reveal its personality.
I like the stealthy misdirection of the dreamy “Kansas, She Said,” too. The out-of-tune strumming and wobbly vocals prepare the listener for an amateurish experience until the echoey keyboard and itty-bitty fuzz guitar and harmonica in the recurring instrumental motif reveal the artistry behind the simplicity. The good-time centerpiece of the record is probably the rubbery “Hazy Heat,” complete with disco strings, turntable scratching, a smoky Bobby Womack sample, and a sexy vocal from Melissa Rodenbeek.
The meditative, Eno-ish “Brooklyn Train” is an elegiac ending to the first half of the disc, which is divided into a ‘New York’ and a ‘Kansas’ half, mirroring Rodenbeek’s early move from her native borough to the Midwest’s flat plains. The wide-open spaces of her new environment are brought to life in the group vocal of “In the Sky,” buried under the peppy strumming of acoustic guitars. The conjuring of sonic spaces that the Harvey Girls are capable of is really impressive, especially since they use such restraint in their arrangements. It’s maybe a good thing that the couple generously gives away nearly all of its material through its website. The riches that might otherwise be pouring in could tempt them to wield a bigger budget for future recordings, compromising the intimacy of The Wild Farewell.
While the Harvey Girls explore a number of styles on this disc, it holds together well due to their skill with a subtle hook and the entertaining production. It’s nice to hear their interest in pop is not beholden to any one genre or decade; the result is a series of songs whose inspirations aren’t obvious but are instead absorbed deep into the fabric of the music this couple creates. Nice job all around, girls.