My most vivid Les Savy Fav concert memory involves shirtless, bearlike frontman Tim Harrington shoving a microphone below his belt line, grabbing a nearby audience member by the head, pulling that head against his crotch and forcing the dude to scream into the mic through his pants. It was opening night of CMJ 2003 in New York, and while Ben Gibbard was tearfully eulogizing Elliott Smith somewhere across town, Harrington was flinging himself off the Knitting Factory balcony. I can’t recall which songs they played that night, but Harrington’s hijinks linger in my temporal lobe almost a decade later. Les Savy Fav is just that kind of band.
It’s not that this pack of former RISD classmates lacks a thick backlog of fantastic music; narrowing down Les Savy Fav’s output to a paltry 10 songs for this feature was rough. It’s just that Harrington’s antics threaten to outshine the music. The guy is a walking double-edged sword. His zany behavior is a major selling point; the anything-goes volatility means every show could erupt into the most exhilarating kind of insanity. But it also runs the risk of coming off like a gimmick. Without access to audio, based purely on the wild weirdness of their live show, Les Savy Fav could be decried as art school’s most obnoxious knowing wink — Harrington, bald, bulbous, and bearded, dangling from the rafters in his underwear and streaking through the crowd in a feather boa. Those who have compared him to a creepy gym teacher are not wrong. He’s awkwardly yet confidently confrontational, a wide-eyed and sweaty embodiment of Tim And Eric-style absurdity.
But you can’t laugh it off as performance art gone bad when the throbbing, slyly melodious post-punk behind it is so good. The band’s multi-tiered sonic assault transforms Harrington’s showmanship from annoying to amazing and assures the band’s studio output is almost as exciting as its live shows. Grounding that kind of live wire requires the fiercest of rhythm sections, and Syd Butler and Harrison Haynes are the men for the job. (Also, shouts to LCD Soundsystem’s Pat Mahoney, who used to keep time for Les Savy.) Seth Jabour’s Gang of Four-indebted guitar barbs are every bit as piercing as Harrington’s ravings, and just as melodically savvy, particularly when crisscrossing with a second guitarist — first Gibb Slife, then Andrew Reuland. Even when Harrington’s surreal storytelling doesn’t compute, it’s usually catchy enough to burrow into your memory and crazy enough to blow your imagination open wide. Far more than just a vehicle for its frontman’s outsized weirdness, this is a world-class rock band capable of shining in many capacities.
That said, Les Savy Fav is definitely an art project, too. What else can you call a band that methodically released 7″ singles for the better part of a decade, each record’s artwork revealing the next section of a nine-part mosaic? Those singles eventually became the 2004 compilation Inches, the band’s best collection of songs. That’s another off-kilter aspect of Les Savy Fav’s legacy: They’ve recorded a handful of eminently solid records, but their strengths never lay in crafting album-length statements. Like many of the world’s great punk bands — and many of Earth’s great art-school nerds, for that matter — their greatness is better considered in fleeting blasts of adrenaline-fueled spectacle.
So that’s how we’ll consider them. I was reminded of Les Savy Fav’s considerable catalog (and my fondness for it) a couple months ago, when Jabour, Butler, and his wife Amy Carlson released a holiday EP under the name Office Romance. Those songs are pleasant and retiring, two words no one could use to describe Les Savy Fav. This music gets in your face, and sometimes, when Harrington’s expressive turns of phrase hit home, it even rips your heart out. If you wish to do the same to me after surveying my choices, there’s a comment section for that. As a freakish bearded bard once sang, “Please go easy on me.”
10. “Appetites” from Root For Ruin (2010)
Les Savy Fav’s opening tracks tend to function as a state-of-the-band address. “Appetites” does so amidst guitar parts that verge on early Strokes levels of pop pedigree, though its propulsive momentum and arena-sized sonics suggests a more pleasingly peculiar answer to Bloc Party. For the most part, Root For Ruin feels like a band running in place, a sequel to Let’s Stay Friends from a band that had been chewing up new scenery with each release. But for one song at least, the gang chorus “We’ve still got our appetite!” rings true. (Bonus points for quoting Silver Jews’ “Punks In the Beerlight.”)
9. “Rome” from Rome (Written Upside Down) (2000)
The taut, triumphant yet utterly downcast Rome (Written Upside Down) EP was the first Les Savy Fav record to match the glories of the band’s live show. Its title track, though, is a slow descent into quicksand. Harrington’s wordplay is typically whimsical — “We’re in a great deal of trouble for just a wee bit of fun!” — but there’s a sense of dread beneath the racket, the sound of an empire crumbling just slowly enough to create the illusion of a way out.
8. “Hold On To Your Genre” from Inches (2004)
There’s no denying that bass. For a band with so many conceptual conceits, “Hold On to Your Genre” rides a low-end gallop from Butler so simple it’s almost stupid. The song builds from there, one concisely synchronized layer at a time — Haynes’ drums driving at a barebones 4/4 clip, Harrington moaning and mumbling vampire allusions, Jabour deploying fang-sharp high-end syncopation — until it all explodes in a cloud of spastic howls, dead-eyed dames and red velvet blazers. I’m pretty sure this song is a metaphor about early-aughts Williamsburg, but even if it’s nothing more than a miniature vampire novel, it rages.
7. “Asleepers Union” from Rome (Written Upside Down) (2000)
By veering close to ballad territory, “Asleepers Union” shows Les Savy Fav can excel outside its wheelhouse. Butler trades his typical eighth-note chug for chunky bass chords. Haynes skips the disco-punk beats in favor of ’90s-style slacker rhythms. Jabour opts for clean, shimmering arpeggios rather than Pixies-style spasmodics. And Harrington holds back from his usual yowl, channeling irony-free emotion even as he communicates in dense symbolism like “I’m in over my head in a shallow waterbed.”
6. “Reprobate’s Resume” from Go Forth (2001)
Musically and lyrically, “Reprobate’s Resume” is all over the place. Harrington spews some of his most memorable, least comprehensible imagery, from “Blessed be the doctor! And blessed be the nurse!” to “sweating bullets in the faculty lounge” to “cheap sex with a discount broker.” The music traipses between disjointed freakouts and emotional aerobics, grounded in cleverly shrouded foundation and Jabour’s melodic Midas touch. No need to go easy on these guys when they’re hitting on all cylinders.
5. “Fading Vibes” from Inches (2004)
Flipping the formula that demands a Les Savy Fav song build from spare post-punk grooves into furious climaxes, “Fading Vibes” starts at full-throated full throttle and gradually parachutes to ground, gliding past one of the finest choruses of the group’s career along the way. The structure is just right for a song about the diminishing returns of partying hard, one that concludes with delicately crooned lyrics like, “We do it way too much/ We do it way too often/ What used to be a crutch/ Has become a coffin” before sputtering to a stop and toppling over.
4. “Adopduction” from Go Forth (2001)
Why Harrington felt compelled to write a song about Stockholm Syndrome I’ll never know, but he wrings the story for all it’s worth. “Adopduction” serves up details so generously that you find yourself wrapped up in a narrative less than four minutes long. He gets kidnapped “by a guy with a mustache and a chick with an eye patch.” His family haggles over the ransom price for years. He gets used to riding in the trunk. His captors treat cops politely so as not to arouse suspicion. He ends up looking back fondly on the whole thing. The twists and turns are captivating thanks in no small part to a soundtrack that lends the story a whimsical grace fit for the arthouse. It’s a dark comedy with something like heart.
3. “The Sweat Descends” from Inches (2004)
“The Sweat Descends” is an absolute banger, a sizzling fuse whose raw and raucous detonation is oh so satisfying. Yet its greatest power is its simply strung phrases. As I’ve been digging through Les Savy Fav’s music to assemble this list, the biggest revelation has been Harrington’s way with words. Even when I have no idea what he’s getting at, his lyrics are striking — often witty, always evocative. This song is one of the singer’s least involved screeds, but of all his twisted mantras, “Meet me where the sweat descends!” works best as Les Savy Fav’s mission statement: a rallying cry and a dare, Harrington as White Rabbit and William Wallace rolled into one, leading the charge through the looking glass and into the mosh pit.
2. “Meet Me In the Dollar Bin” from Inches (2004)
There’s nothing incidental, accidental or coincidental about it: “Meet Me In The Dollar Bin” is designed as Les Savy Fav’s victory lap. It’s the leadoff track on Inches, but also the culmination of that project, the literal final piece of the puzzle. And what a way to cap it off: a study in tension and release, restraint and reward, screaming feedback punctuated by thunderous blows. It ends on a note of proud accomplishment: “We got old, but we got good/ And we did all we said we would.” Had they packed up and called it a day after that, their legacy would have been sealed. But it’s a good thing they didn’t because then the No. 1 song on this list wouldn’t exist.
1. “The Equestrian” from Let’s Stay Friends (2007)
At once the most rhythmically intense and melodically charged song in the Les Savy Fav canon — make that cannon — “The Equestrian” is quite simply the band’s gold standard. Harrington tells a tale of illicit love among equine enthusiasts, replete with a reference to jodhpurs, and makes it sound like the most exhilarating of affairs. Sonically, it’s a constant thrill, the demon spawn of “Search And Destroy” and “Paranoid Android” Godzilla-stomping its way into the world’s most treacherous whirlpool and swirling to its doom, cackling and flailing and making peace with the light at the end of the tunnel. Before you make out what the singer’s going on about, it’s already the most breathless of fist-pumpers, the kind of rock song rock songs were made for. You’d think assigning such thunderous music to Harrington’s horseback seduction story would rob it of its power, render it a joke. But he’s such a skilled storyteller that universal sensations shine through the absurd details, and the song’s exultant climax comes into deeper focus: Rarely has music so thoroughly conjured the breathless rush of orgasm. When “The Equestrian” has had its way with you, all that’s left to do is light up a cigarette and bask in the glow.