“Flagpole Sitta”. Okay, there, I said it. With the prerequisite mentioning of Harvey Danger’s 1998 über-hit out of the way, maybe there’s a semblance of a chance that Little by Little can be discussed simply as a new record, not as a new record by the band “that had the huge hit all over MTV that one summer.” Fat chance, huh? Not that there’s anything wrong with the hit single I shall try not to name again. It was about as brilliant a piece of guitar pop as I can remember, just overplayed.
Evidently Harvey Danger did have a life after Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone spawned “Flagpole Sitta”. It was a quieter life, certainly, but a life filled with devoted fans and a second record, King James Version, that showed the first to be no fluke. King James Version was full of snappy guitar hooks and clever lyrical takes on the pop-centric world we live in. With tongue firmly in cheek, Harvey Danger were doing a good job of carving out a niche in the burgeoning pop/punk domain of the late ’90s, but the heights they reached with “Flagpole Sitta” (okay, that’s three times and I’m only in the second paragraph, so screw it, it was a good song, just overplayed) would prove elusive. It’s been six years since we heard anything from Harvey Danger, but they’re back and they come bearing, wait for it, wait for it… pianos.
Little By Little has no resemblance to the Harvey Danger that you think you know. There’s not much in the way of the guitar-fueled bombast that characterized their first two albums, and when the guitars do start screaming it just doesn’t fit. Indeed Little By Little has a lot more in common with Spoon or Coldplay than, say, Blink-182 or Green Day. It’s the piano-heavy songwriting that makes Little by Little so interesting. If Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone is a rebellious kid kicking over trashcans in his neighborhood, then Little by Little seems to be that kid all grown up, taking out the trash, putting the lid on tightly, getting in his Jetta, and driving to work. At the onset, Little by Little sounds suspiciously like a band settling into the kind of comfortable piano rock experimentation of Keane or Coldplay. You know, the whole sensitive-guy-but-still-a-rocker schtick that seems so popular nowadays, like emo but quieter.
If you can get past the album’s first single and worst song, “Cream and Bastards Rise” (the song is such a clear recollection of the band’s last two albums that it has to be a bone thrown to the fans put off by all the piano), Harvey Danger will take you on quite a journey into pop song craft. Patience is a virtue here, and it’s well rewarded.
It may take a few listens, but Little by Little is thick with five star songwriting: there’s enough melody in “War Buddies” to keep the song bouncing around your skull for weeks, “Little Round Mirrors” has Nelson reaching for a wonderful warbling falsetto on a chorus anchored by a French horn and a classic “ba ba ba ba” refrain, and “Happiness Writes White” is a head-over-heels love song set to a bouncy piano line. The best thing about Little by Little is that Harvey Danger never push the songs into schmaltz. Let’s face it, in the context of rock music, pianos can be used for good or evil. Think about the difference between Elton John playing “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and “Candle in the Wind”, or the transformation of Joe Jackson from “Is She Really Going Out With Him” to “Stepping Out”. Harvey Danger’s ability to sidestep such pitfalls is due at least in part to Nelson’s lyrical acumen: wry examinations of every day life cleverly littered with pop detritus, full of clever turns of phrase. Rest assured Harvey Danger still write great pop songs, they just sound different now.
An interesting aside: Harvey Danger has taken an interesting route with the distribution of Little by Little. Professing on their website to have seen the future of music distribution in legal downloading, they have made Little by Little available as a free bitTorrent download. It should be noted, however, that the version of the record available for purchase at your local music store includes a second disc of bonus material. I don’t know if I’d call that bonus disc essential, but it’s got some interesting stuff, including versions of songs on Little by Little in early stages of development. Also worth noting is the excellent graphic design work in the CD packaging. I’m not sure if it will make people buy it in the store, but it sure is pretty to look at.