To start, a clarification: This quartet, based in Sydney, Australia, is not the same group as a trio called the Crustaceans that tore up the southeast music scene in the 1990s. It would have been nice if that group had made it, but some solace can be had that this incarnation of the Crustaceans makes pretty good music, too.
Toby Blackman, Vijay Khurana, Owen Cooper, and Simon Robert Berckelman have been together since 2001. I’m Happy If You’re Happy is their second album; their first, The Early Crustaceous Period, collects the self-produced EPs on which their rep was built. These songs evoke the balmy, bucolic settings in which they were written and recorded, and their use of imagery is rather advanced for such young men.
“Telecaster” opens things up-tempo, introducing the listener right off to the group’s sense of humor: “I wish that I were a tree / So I could be cut down by the Fender company”. The album’s first half stays in that mode, with vivid characterizations and little of the self-consciousness and snark that has come to typify the pop-rock genre. The guitar sound on “Caribou” calls to mind “Friends of P”, and its hook, “I was born in Canada / I was born in Montreal”, could double as a Quebecois anthem.
Romance is the theme of “Out of the Library and into the Street”, achieving a nearly Frente-like sweetness without crossing over into the twee. On “What I Miss Most”, that line is crossed. “The Heavy Metal Temptress” presents a tale of young love in a cynical age, reminiscent of They Might Be Giants with its cheeky wordplay and “sunny” chorus: “It’s all right / I like your piercings / It’s all right / You like my Porkers t-shirt / It never rains in Sydney / It never rains in Sydney”. It’s one of the album’s most effective songs.
“The Ambulance Driver” has substantial crossover potential, but at nearly seven minutes, it’s unlikely to make commercial radio. Their loss is college radio’s gain. The narrator is watching the world from the perspective of one who delivers others from their suffering, but is growing jaded as time goes by: “Everybody’s holding on with just one hand / Peeling grapes and singing sad, sad songs / I’m driving in the daytime with my headlights on / The siren doesn’t bother me, but now I’m kind of used to it”. A slow build and rising drums into an almost sincere-sounding guitar solo underscores the drowsy ambivalence of the lyric: “I’ve got blood on the soles of my shoes / But I’ll still be out there on the line tonight / A diuretic conversation about the Doppler Effect / And I’ve just got to quit this band so I’ll have time to play guitar again”.
This music is not going to blow anyone away, but the writing and execution are smart enough to stand out in a genre that can sometimes be glutted with groups that look alike and sound alike. It’s heartening to note that the vocals gain in strength and confidence as the album moves briskly through its 40 minutes. Fans of early R.E.M., Yo La Tengo, the Breeders, etc. should definitely give this album a shot. And, yes, if you like the original Crustaceans, you will like these Crustaceans as well.