While the music press spends an inordinate amount of energy tracking indie bands who rise to major label status and waiting for them to sell out, fall flat or punch Rivers Cuomo in the face, underdogs who released their first albums through majors but quickly found themselves out on the streets have retreated to the underground and resigned themselves to cultdom. A number of bands who do this ink deals with startup labels, tour college towns, sneak a potential sleeper hit into the middle of their next album and feed the press sob stories about sleeping on hardwood floors and brushing their teeth with pine cones because the bristles fell out of their toothbrushes and they had to spend their few bucks on egg McMuffins and E-strings. The bands who do this tend to be one-hit wonders trying to weasel their way back into the spotlight, but it rarely works, because chances are good that their latest records
suck as much as the ones wasting precious space on yard sale tables and Salvation Army shelves.
Harvey Danger appear to be taking the more noble Nada Surf/Superdrag route. Little by Little... gleefully expands on the flashes of brilliance that hid beneath their two heavily funded albums. And while the band's marketing techniques -- providing a free download of the entire album on the website and releasing the cardboard 'n' plastic artifact on their own dime -- may be as disastrous as they are ballsy, it's unlikely that a pop album this fine will go unheard.
"Wine, Women, and Song" and "Cream and Bastards Rise", Little by Little's opening one-two punch, immediately reveals the reason that Harvey Danger have established a rapport with the Risk-playing, no prom date contingent in the five years since their last studio album. Both songs speak with a wizened yet frustrated voice; they're the ramblings and rantings of a guy who's been around long enough and observed the world closely enough to figure out how the game works, but still finds himself wondering why he can't get such a firm handle on his own life. The first of the two tracks details years spent dabbling in Solomon's three favorite pastimes, turning one witty, self-deprecating phrase after another ("All the baggage I brought wouldn't fit a mid-size car"; "She was hungrier than I was brilliant") but always returning to the depressing fact of the matter: "It did not take me long / To figure I'd unlocked the door to happiness / I figured wrong."
The album's first single, and the only true-blue rocker of the bunch, "Cream and Bastards Rise" attempts to snarl at the "fools", "aliens" and "spies" who keep a good man down, but lyricist Sean Nelson never lets his cynicism override his wit. Similarly, a filthy guitar solo fails to significantly dirty up a jubilant, Cars-style melody. That's fine, though -- Harvey Danger aren't in the business of busting down the gates. They're writing complex pop songs with structural curveballs to please the kids who get a bigger kick out of hearing the word "charlatan" in a rock song then they do from hearing a grown man live out his Peter Criss fantasies.
If Little by Little's first songs communicate their wide-ranging skepticism with a bit of a bite, the album's mid-section expresses a humbler, more charming self-doubt. "Happiness Writes White" pays homage to the ineffable; Nelson admits, "I don't trust my fingers, I don't trust my tongue" while trying to explain why his more positive emotions don't translate into good art. He returns to his clever, loquacious self in "Incommunicado", but doesn't really appear to be satisfied in this mode either: "I wish the words would just fail me for once." Nelson's introspection keeps his finger-wagging in check, while more story-oriented songs like "What You Live by" and "War Buddies" buffer against outright navel-gazing.
Harvey Danger's songwriting has come quite a ways from the days of "I'm not sick but I'm not well / And I'm so hot / Cause I'm in heeee-ellllll." Granted, Nelson's self-aware witticisms make him sound like a bit of a smart-ass schoolboy, but he's genuinely sensitive and wise enough when he needs to be, so Little by Little isn't allowed to exist in a state of perpetual youth. It argues that cafeteria-table politics and insecurities carry themselves out to their logical conclusions in the real world, and clearly sides with the guys who lettered in academic bowl. Words and music congeal into a flowing, nuanced entity, and we're treated to a mature, rounded statement from one of the last bands we'd expect to deliver one.