JHC&T4HOTC blew onto the scene in 2006 with “Connecticut’s for Fucking,” a sublimely silly/clever joke custom-made almost solely for self-aware tri-state area NPR listeners… that just happened to be one of that year’s best singles. Their eponymous debut was full of sharp, goodnatured gems that held up over repeated listens. Album Number Two, Happier Than You mines the same territory—clever people writing songs about sex and relationships, backed by big guitars and, uh, four hornsmen—though to much lesser effect.
Co-writers/singers Risa Mickenberg and Joel Shelton still have a short story writer’s knack for pith and detail, as well as an incisive way with a phrase—to wit, “You can stroke my ego, but that’s all,” Mickenberg teases the titular character of “Back Burner Guy”, and their combination of humor leavened with sadness, when it clicks, rivals that of smart-alecky power pop standard-bearers Fountains of Wayne (see JHC’s “Bright Future in Sales” re-write, “Alcoholics in My Town”). But even with all the right pieces in place for the band, Happier Than You is a thoroughgoing bummer.
Happier Than You
US: 28 Oct 2008
UK: 21 Oct 2008
Sonically, the band sounds great, with elements of surf, power pop riffs and steel guitar cushioning Mickenberg’s bright, brassy voice. Still, the band can’t overcome the gloom that pervades the record. When she’s not plumbing the depths with cynical, if not contemptible, third-person sketches (opener “Liz the Hot Receptionist”; “Jill Used to Be Normal,” which could be the resentful flipside to the Lemonheads’ cheery “Alison’s Starting to Happen”) or glib social commentary (the self-Googler diatribe on “Vanity Surfing”), Mickenberg’s characters repeatedly find themselves having humiliating one-way conversations where the band’s earlier commitment to tunecraftsmanship takes a backseat to messy emotional blurting: “I’m Around” is a series of desperate messages spoke-sung into a suitor’s answering machine; “Pathetic” plays the same Sprechstimme/self-doubt card. Who knew that Jesus H. Christ isn’t happier than us?