First Listen: Sean Nelson, 'Make Good Choices'

NPR icon by Stephen Thompson
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In the playfully faux-autobiographical "Kicking Me Out of the Band," Harvey Danger's Sean Nelson closes his solo debut by painting a comical portrait of a deluded former frontman whose hedonistic exploits get him booted from the band he'd founded. It's a stinging, clever bit of satire — the sort of song Nelson ought to trot out at a key moment in the stage musical he was born to write one day — but it also draws a sharp contrast to the singer's own story.

Unlike the subject of "Kicking Me Out of the Band," Harvey Danger followed its own tremendous success — in the form of a smash single called "Flagpole Sitta" back in 1998 — with a pair of lovely records, neither of which did much of anything commercially. But Nelson never seemed to chase another chart-topper: His band's second album, 2000's King James Version, was a lush, thoughtful, sonically ambitious flop, and Harvey Danger self-released a near-perfect power-pop record (Little by Little...) five years later, before slowly winding down operations by the end of the decade. The group disbanded amid no apparent animosity, and Nelson has kept busy as a writer, actor and occasional musician ever since.

Now, eight years after Little by Little..., Nelson returns with Make Good Choices, a wonderfully catchy and quotable solo album to which he'd devoted years of intermittent tinkering. Recorded with an assortment of sure-handed all-stars, including R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla, Make Good Choices fits perfectly on the irregular-but-unimpeachable Harvey Danger continuum. The title track even serves as a sequel of sorts to the group's last song, "The Show Must Not Go On," as Nelson looks back on a failed relationship through the lenses of temptation and bitterness, only to wisely conclude that the past is best left where it belongs.

True to virtually every piece of music Nelson has ever written, Make Good Choices (out June 4) is fueled by a cocktail of quotability and charm — not to mention a gift for gorgeous ballads like "Advance and Retreat" — but also clearly informed by the unlikely career that led him to this point. In all, it's a fine new beginning for Nelson, a singer who's all the wiser for the endings he's faced.

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