Seattle’s Sean Nelson shows shades of Harvey Danger and more on debut solo album
By Brent Stecker/Seattle Sounds contributor
With Harvey Danger’s lone smash hit “Flagpole Sitta” now 15 years old, the band’s lead singer, Sean Nelson, can be seen as an influential elder statesman of the Seattle music scene. His debut album, Make Good Choices, which was released earlier this month, certainly cements his status as such.
Nelson’s knack for pop songwriting is on full display on Make Good Choices, but it’s his vocal style that both drives the album and hammers home just how important he, and his old band, are to the history of Seattle rock. Early on in the track list, Nelson’s singing sounds eerily similar to that of Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, a reminder to listeners that Harvey Danger had a big hand in Death Cab for Cutie becoming one of indie rock’s biggest draws. In fact, Nelson explained in an interview with “Seattle Sounds” that he and DCFC have been running in the same circles for some time, and one of their members had a big role in making Make Good Choices.
“I made some songs with my friend Chris Walla, who is in Death Cab For Cutie, and we go pretty far back,” Nelson said. “When I was in Harvey Danger, I met those guys and they came to Seattle to open for us at the Crocodile (for) their first show in Seattle. I heard their demo tape and loved it so much I set up that show so they could come down here. … Four of the songs on the record we (Nelson and Walla) wrote together. He played all the instruments except for the drums and produced the tracks.”
Walla wasn’t the only helping hand for the album, however. Nelson worked on and off for nine years putting it together with several others, including REM’s Peter Buck, even though he was unsure what the end result would be for much of the process.
“I had a hard time committing to the idea that I was going to be a solo artist,” he said. “It has my name on it, and I tried to think of a project name, band name to call it … eventually it was my wife Shenandoah who said, ‘You have to shut up and call the record done and put your name on it.’ The short version is, I just couldn’t commit to thinking of myself that way after being in bands for so long.”
Considering how fragmented the sessions were, Nelson did a remarkable job making it sound like a cogent piece of music.
“To me, all the songs I do kind of feel like they are of a piece, because while I try to make them feel different and special each time, I think that they all are part of of the same continuum,” he said. “When I kind of realized that was when I started to think, ‘Oh wow, this is a record. It’s not, like, seven partial records.’ ”
As much as acts that Nelson have influenced are recalled on the album, the sounds of his own influences are just as present. The theatrical melodies and tongue-in-cheek vocals of Harry Nilsson (who Nelson covered for his Nelson Does Nilsson project in 2006) show up on “Brooklyn Bridges” and “Ski Lift Incident”; opener “The World Owes Me A Living (And I Intend To Collect)” rocks upbeat pop rock in the vein of Cheap Trick; and the tones of alt country surprisingly appear on “I’ll Be the One.”
Fans of Harvey Danger shouldn’t be afraid, however, as that group’s classic sound is still very much involved on songs like “Creative Differences” and “The Price of Doing Business.” And Nelson’s silver tongue, the most crucial element of Harvey Danger’s success, is as sharp as ever. Just keep your ears peeled on the finale trio of “Stupid & 25 (The Incredibly Sad Shuffle),” “Hey, Millicent,” and the supergroup-listing “Kicking Me Out of the Band,” and you’ll realize the same wits that cracked up listeners in the late 90s are just as entertaining a decade and a half later.