Little by Little…
was a surprising supporter of Harvey Danger’s first album, Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone? Known primarily for the ubiquitous brat anthem “Flagpole Sitta,” the over-educated Seattle quartet seemed to locate the nerve between slacking indie-dom and heart-on-sleeve alt-rock. They were simultaneously detached enough to put lead singer Sean Nelson’s English degree to annoying use, but gallant and forward enough to sing a line like “I forget what my friends look like / And they forget why they like me / But that’s old hat / I’m so happy / How do you write about that?” a refreshing sentiment for late 90’s radio rock.
When the band’s eager sophomore effort, King James Version, failed to find an audience, they lost the attention of the majors and disappeared into the internet. With the recent emergence of one-hit peer Nada Surf on the indie circuit, perhaps Harvey Danger was primed for a similar re-birth; after all, fans of literate pop tunes have found growing audiences with the hipster set.
All of this presupposes, however, that the Danger are able to strike the same balance of petulant hooks and wiseass sentiment. But like so many forgotten-by-the-execs sob stories, Harvey Danger have stumbled upon what critics like to refer to as “maturity.” Indeed, where this band used to screech and scrawl out of sheer glee, they now stumble too professionally around Costello-lite suburban anthems. Nelson has replaced charming vocal inaccuracy for commendable, though less personal, on-key tenor. The band’s slap-happy power chords now replaced by the real thing: minor A’s and major G’s, smoothed out under too many plinking piano leads. “Paranoia paranoia / Everybody’s comin’ to get me” replaced by real paranoia on the predictable “War Buddies.”
“Flagpole Sitta” seemed lucky, a beautiful confluence of “Louie Louie” stumble and postgraduate humor. And by comparison (fair or not), “Wine, Women, and Song,” the lead track and best song off of Little by Little…, seems painfully deliberate. One of surprisingly few up-tempo numbers, “Wine” makes fine use of buoyant piano chords, with an all growed up Nelson experiencing grown up problems: “Changing the cat box / Baking the bread / I should’ve been paying the bills instead.” At his best, Nelson turns adulthood into painfully familiar ache: “Once I dated an actor / She was working on a play / On opening night we had nothing to say / We hit the wall it was not resilient / She said that she was hungrier than I was brilliant.” When his suddenly melodic voice wraps around the line, “Didn’t you used to be / Someone who meant something to me?” it’s tough not to empathize with his failed relationships and frustrated malaise.
Unfortunately, when these same themes keep popping up in less engrossing tunes, it’s difficult to separate Harvey Danger from adult-contemporary blather like Ben Folds Five and Death Cab for Cutie. On the tediously melodramatic “What You Live By,” Nelson darkly intones “You will die by what you live by / every tiiiiiiime” over rolling piano chords. It’s heavy enough to breed confusion when the boy-girl back and forth of “Incommunicado” serendipitously follows with classic-rock organ fills and smoove lead guitar lines.
It’s not surprising Harvey Danger lack a cohesive musical identity. Most bands that suffer the whirlwind of an early-career radio smash eventually need to look hard in the mirror. Unfortunately, nearly every water the band dips its toes into here seems an ill fit. Only on “Cream and Bastards” do they recapture a semblance of their shambling pop-punk playfulness.
A separate disc of castaways and demos reveals that most of the power chord rockers were left on the cutting room floor, but perhaps rightly so: Their exclusion seems more a product of disappointing tunelessness than a desire to branch in new directions. Though unfair to expect a band to retain their youthful glee forever, it seems that age has brought not only increased professionalism and skill, but a sense of defeatism and waywardness. The band may yet make fruitful, meaningful music, and they’ve now positioned themselves with the proper audience, but Little by Little… languishes too strongly to merit recommendation. Don’t call it comeback; Little by Little… only gets the band halfway there.