The title Little by Little comes from a quote by Homer Bannon, the patriarch of the 1963 Paul Newman film Hud. The full line is “Little by little, the look of the country changes because of the men we admire.” It is one of many memorable lines from the film, and one that is subtle enough to be taken as either optimism or pessimism. This can also describe Seattle, its hometown boys Harvey Danger, and more specifically the album which has cribbed that title. Little by Little is a combination of the sounds of sunny pop with clever, biting and at times self-deprecating lyrics. It’s been five years since the band’s sophomore album, King James Version, and eight years since their breakout hit, “Flagpole Sitta.” Those who dismissed Harvey Danger as a one-hit wonder were already selling them short as those first two albums were stacked deep with songs just as clever and catchy as the single. The `return’ of Harvey Danger goes even further to convince the naysayers of their pop pedigree as Little by Little is a song for song thesis project, making the Seattle band the alumni of Pop University, matriculation over, caps in the air.
“Wine, Women, and Song” reintroduces the listener to the core sound of Harvey Danger, the Brian Molko meets Geddy Lee combined with Roger Hodgson vocals of Sean Nelson. Guitarist Jeff Lin proves that he is just as proficient on the piano as he is on the post-grunge guitars found in the group’s early work. Also reintroduced are the trademark wit and poetic devices. Endings of lines end up to be beginnings of the next, creating two separate thoughts in one overlapped lyric. Take this longer piece:
Song, women, and wine:
You can’t fool all the people all the time
But if you’re trying, if you’re looking, if you’re lucky
You can always fool a few and feel fine
Is the line between shame and dread:
One grips the lungs, one brains the head
But either one can crush you.
“Moral Centralia” depicts the after effects of a broken relationship, with Centralia, Washington (halfway between Seattle and Portland) representing trying to meet someone halfway psychologically. “Little Round Mirrors” is a magnificent song, again employing the use of piano, spare notes on the guitar, and a few horns thrown in for good measure. The track can easily rival any of Death Cab for Cutie’s tension building and emotionally resonant songs. “Diminishing Returns” brings some of the political into view along with the dichotomy of the half-full, half-empty qualities of the album and its lyrics:
Progress shall be defined by your position on the bridge as it burns
When populism, activism, urbanism fail,
My cooler head – my cooler head will prevail
These and the rest of the songs on Little by Little represent a new direction for Harvey Danger, the band who probably run only second to Pink Floyd in being asked “Which one’s (insert name of band here)”. The guitars are still there, but rather than the `inspired by Nirvana’ crunchiness found in earlier albums, there’s far more of a jangly Chris Walla or Johnny Marr feel to the strings. The piano has stepped into the forefront, which will inevitably draw the Coldplay and Keane comparisons, and Sean Nelson’s vocal style, specifically in “What You Live By” could draw comparisons to Colin Meloy, but the sound of each song is Harvey Danger’s alone. Little by Little is one of the most pleasantly surprising albums of the year and one that truly displays the intricate and clever songwriting of a band in its prime.
Death Cab for Cutie- Plans
Supertramp- Breakfast in America
Jon Brion- Meaningless