Everybody’s going power pop! Across all genres of pop music, there seems to be a reinvigorated concern for infectious melodies and hooks—as was noted with surprise and pleasure at the release of Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion. But Happy Birthday does power pop with guitars, not digital programming. Though the songs are actually tightly woven and structured, there’s a trashy element and sloppy feel to the sugary melodies they deliver on their self-titled debut. The vocals are always counterpointed by lead guitar, harkening back to the power pop that came after punk—sweet but also loud.
The story about Happy Birthday that gets repeated is their quick pick up by Sub Pop after only a few gigs. This, of course gets, connected to the fact that the band is led by Kyle Thomas of Witch (with J. Mascis) and the folk band Feathers and Ruth Garbus (sister of Merrill, tUnE-yArDs, etc.) So much for their luck and their pedigree: the album is actually good.
Despite the catchiness of the melodies—the opener “Girls FM” will get into your head and won’t leave. I was initially resistant to the album; perhaps its saccharine texture overwhelmed me at first. Thomas’s voice also takes some getting used to. He’s got a bit of Mascis’s whine, mixed with a quality that recalls the munchkins from Wizard of Oz. (The strain of his voice is nicely relieved when Garbus\‘s vocals come in sounding like vintage girl pop). The middle of the album seemed to drag a bit at first, slowing down in tempo and losing the straightforward catchiness. But upon listening a few more times, the album opened up for me and became more complicated.
Power pop and complicated don’t necessarily seem to go together, yet what Happy Birthday does successfully is find a way to layer their melodies and trade off sweetness and snarl in a rewarding way. Even the songs that don’t deliver their hooks as straightforwardly, like “Eyes Music” and “Pink Strawberry Shake”, find a way to ingrain themselves in your head. Happy Birthday makes a multi-dimensional power pop that doesn’t rely only on one melody or riff. Songs like “Girls FM” and “Subliminal Message”, which could rely on the easy catchiness of their beginnings, move on to chart different territories after the initial tune in interesting bridges that bring in new guitar sounds and vocal lines.
Lyrically the album is totally adolescent, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. While today’s pop scene is taken up by a questionable nostalgia for childhood, luckily Happy Birthday’s return to youth is not prepubescent but forcefully teenage: see the angry “Zit” where Thomas sings “I was a teenage zit … Now I wanna break shit / Don’t wanna make shit” over a Stooges style stomp. The anger doesn’t come across with bad humor though. In fact, this album is overloaded with a feeling of fun that is reminiscent of the Dictators rehash of rock n’ roll. Like their punk progenitors, Happy Birthday displays a vast knowledge of pop’s history and mines it to great success to piece together a power pop album for now, while still referencing all the important points that came before. It’s derivative but sounds fresh, which is what rock n’ roll does best.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.
// Notes from the Road
"Co-presented by the World Music Institute, the 92Y hosted a rare and mesmerizing performance from India's violin virtuoso L. Subramaniam.READ the article