p>Smash hits can smash promising long-term careers, particularly for bands that don't expect them. Witness Harvey Danger, whose "Flagpole Sitta" was originally released on a modest indie label before blowing up big enough to warrant placement on MTV, in stadiums around the country, and on the first U.S. version of the shiny radio-hit compilation series Now, where it nestled uncomfortably with prefab pan-flashers like Hanson, Spice Girls, and Aqua. But the song, like the rest of 1998's Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone?, was (and is) far smarter than most pop radio; it just dressed in clothes and melodies bold enough to blend in. A typical post-hit career followed: 2000's King James Version, while good, fell on deaf ears, ignored by indie fans who might've liked it and by the casual fans who snapped up Merrymakers from the impulse-buy section at Walgreens.
The Seattle band then faded gracefully: Singer-lyricist Sean Nelson used his pen for other purposes, writing rock criticism and helping get Barsuk Records (home to current compatriots Nada Surf and Death Cab For Cutie) off the ground. In a way, that work helped set the stage for Harvey Danger's return by fostering and bolstering smart, wordy pop that's also unabashedly tuneful enough to earn love from The OC. With Little By Little—self-released, strangely enough, instead of by Barsuk—Harvey Danger steps back into glorious indie-pomp-rock as if it never burned bright and then out.
Nelson's pen and wit remain sharp, and his tendency to overplay the room—a critical HD ingredient that's both a weakness and a strength—is intact. Harvey Danger always aims for the rafters, and when it hits, it hits squarely. "Cream And Bastards Rise" aligns and ignites the formula perfectly, as does, improbably, "Cool James," which manages to incorporate references to LL Cool J and Lawrence Of Arabia without sounding pretentious or utterly askew. "Little Round Mirrors" laments fandom with a sharp tongue, and "Happiness Writes White" gets positively Paul McCartney-esque with piano and strings, though it does trip over lines like "I don't need a God to make me feel all right." Likewise, the album-closer "Diminishing Returns" leans indulgently autobiographical. (And quotes Sartre—yow!) But since that overreaching mostly ends up on the money, Little By Little is better than it has any business being. Maybe longevity is in the cards, just delivered via curveball.