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Harvey Milk, left to right: Creston Spiers, Kyle Spence, Stephen Tanner.
Harvey Milk, left to right: Creston Spiers, Kyle Spence, Stephen Tanner. Mike White
Harvey Milk is a band that does not take itself seriously. Formed in a college town that had little interest in sludgy noise-rock — and named, of course, for the San Francisco gay-rights leader — the Athens, Ga., group spent the '90s laying down gnarled railwork, picking up obsessed drifters along the way. But the members of Harvey Milk never cared in any case (no, seriously); if a sledgehammer or an out-of-tune piano got the job done, then you either saddled up like a smart guy or buzzed off. The band's seventh album, A Small Turn of Human Kindness, plays like one long metallic dirge, which chronicles a broken man, his broken relationship and the doubt of grace.
The song titles read like confessionals scrawled on bathroom walls: "I Just Want to Go Home," "I Am Sick of All This Too," "I Know This Is No Place for You." Vocalist and guitarist Creston Spiers has never shied away from turning inward, but there's almost a maliciousness as this loose story unfolds. And, like his depressive guide, Leonard Cohen — whom Spiers has covered many times — he takes aim with a suppressed grin.
Reportedly written in response to one disappointed online fan (not really), A Small Turn of Human Kindness marks somewhat of a return to Harvey Milk's weirdest and challenging music, but with every release, Harvey Milk has brought its disparate sonic worlds closer together. In "I Am Sick of All This Too," for example, the staccato riffing recalls the band's early experiments in structure, but also features a mantra-like vocal exercise — a variation technique Spiers has developed on more recent albums. It's an impressive showcase for his slow and rusty howl, which always did sound like a rough approximation of bluesman Charley Patton.
A Small Turn of Human Kindness, available here until the album's release on May 18, wallows in misery but relieves listeners with moments of metallic majesty. It's hard to tell when the band is winking at its audience, yukking it up behind epic double-guitar leads and dramatic drum fills. But if the final line of "I Did Not Call Out" — "In the dead gray ashes / There was grace" — is any indication, we won't know anytime soon.
Advisory: Some of these tracks contain explicit language, with subject matter not suitable for all ages.