It's a tiny pleasure to see the rebirth of a band long thought dead””especially a band pegged as a one-hit wonder, when their albums are jammed packed with catchy, accessible tracks. Unfortunately, that's what the mid and late '90s brought a lot of bands: a quick flirtation with mainstream success, fleeting fame, a nice boost in the bank account, and a push out the door. The laundry list is long and depressing. It'd be nice if we could have witnessed many of these bands grow, experiment, and float or sink depending on their output, not on the decisions of uptight, out-of-touch record executives.
So, it's warming to find that after five years of hiding from the spotlight, Harvey Danger have come back with a strong and mature record. Little by Little finds the quartet exploring yet another realm of pop after the mainstream success of Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone? and the indie success of King James Version. Again, maturity is the key word””the band has kept much of the pretense and whirling wordplay to complement an album full of piano, tighter instrumentation, and introspective lyrics.
The first half of the album hits like a freight train. "Wine, Women and Song" pieces a skip-to-my-lou piano melody with the misfortunes of living an image. "Cream and Bastards Rise" tells it like it is to anyone who will listen. The driving guitars and bass help to cushion the blow. "Happiness Writes White" is an upbeat piano number about trying to write a love song for someone who apparently needs the comfort and stability a song would bring to his/her insecurities. "Moral Centralia" recants the story of a midnight drive and wishing things never changed for the worse. It's a song that, without feeling overtly preachy, sticks it to all the people who've turned their backs on their humanity and convictions. I'm sure whomever the song is truly about has to feel the sting of the truth, and I'm sure any mix tape you'd include the song on would send a message to the recipient.
Sadly, the second half of the album starts to dawdle. None of the songs are terrible, or even boring, but after the strong start, it's disappointing to see the horse lose speed heading into the home stretch. "Incommunicado" is too cut-and-dry, and the music is too plodding to bring the lyrics to life, even if we've all been guilty of living in the past. The metaphoric "War Buddies" doesn't work at all and echoes the sentimental sap of Eve 6's "Here's to the Night," Black Lab's "Wash it Away," or any alterna-pop you can recall from the late '90s.
So, to summarize: the first half of Little by Little feels fresh, exciting, and different for a band whose success came during a heyday for alternative-driven music. The second half relies on old tricks from old dogs. That doesn't necessarily bury this album, because no matter how innovative you prefer your music, there will always be a soft spot for the days when local radio was your musical source; Harvey Danger does more to fill that hole without having to create the exact same records from eight years ago. A strong return for a band that hints at more brimming under the surface””let's hope, anyway.
1. Wine, Women, and Song
2. Cream and Bastards Rise
3. Moral Centralia
4. Little Round Mirrors
5. Happiness Writes White
7. Cool James
8. What You Live By
9. War Buddies
10. Diminishing Returns