The Happy Bullets: The Vice and Virtue Ministry

[31 October 2005]

By David Bernard

It seemed as though all hope was lost for lovers of ‘60s-style psychedelic pop music. The Elephant Six Collective was one remaining bastion for this lost genre of music. But as the ‘90s moved forward, the E6 stronghold lost its grip. The Olivia Tremor Control, other than releasing a highly overrated debut album, has been dormant. They recently resurfaced to schedule some tour dates, but God knows when they’ll produce any music. The other big act from the collective, Neutral Milk Hotel, released an album that’s still popular with the indie kids of 2005. But that was seven years ago. Elf Power and Sunshine Fix are pale imitations of greater E6 bands, and Of Montreal seems to be the only member of E6 to release albums consistently. And even they have moved away from the tripped-out The Gay Parade and Coquelicot, switching to electronic beats and simplified chord progressions.

So where is the loyal psychedelic pop lover to find his or her next catchy goodness? Try Dallas, Texas. Texans the Happy Bullets churn out excellent pop music worthy of Elephant Six (hell, it’s better than anything that group has released recently) or the British Invasion. Writing about the bourgeoisie and rifle companies, the Happy Bullets conjure images of posh English country sides and colonial America. In their attempt to compete with the Flaming Lips for the trippiest, longest semi-science fiction song title ever, they include “A Momentary Vision of the End of the World as Seen Through the Eyes of a Suburban Housewife”. This is pop music as God intended. It’s infectious. It’s psychedelic at times. And boy is it good.

Their aesthetic borrows from the barely arranged brass sections in many Neutral Milk Hotel songs. But the Britishness comes through most frequently in the lyrics: “At the Vice and Virtue Ministry / You’ll earn your etiquette degree / Climb the ranks and join us here amongst the bourgeoisie”. It’s a mix of foppish clichés and hundred-year-old British culture as viewed through the eyes of American college graduates with no background in history. But it’s incredibly funny and witty. While mocking the people in the penny seats, members of the Vice and Virtue Ministry wear monocles and “Quote articles from Tennyson and Keats”. If there were space, I’d quote the entire title track.

Each song inhabits another nook of pop goodness and cleverness. Voices change from song to song, and arrangements and styles vary wildly. The title track has a sublimely caterwauled falsetto note that recurs throughout. “Mr. Gray” is a lost Kinks or Herman’s Hermits song. “A Proper Rifle Assembly” powers along with a military drum sound. The only time that the preciousness wears thin is on “Weights and Measures”, a simple song with a nasally delivery that devastates an already weak premise.

With co-songwriters Jason Roberts and Tim Rumble trading off on the lead vocals, bassist Andrea Roberts gets her lead vocal shot on “If You Were Mine”, an up-tempo sing-a-long with shamelessly precious lyrics: “Who waxed the floors and opened the trap doors / Because I’m falling”. Lines like this remind me of Of Montreal (Nick Hornby warned us about beginning titles and names with prepositions), but without the coy French names and sometimes overwhelming absurdity. Instead we’re left with songs that teeter between nauseating and exhilarating. The fine line is masterfully straddled by the Happy Bullets.

The Vice and Virtue Ministry closes appropriately with “Good Day!”, a track dedicated to making the coming 24 hours pleasant. It sums up the album perfectly. Trudging along in your boring life with your boring job and insufferable significant other, the Happy Bullets are dedicated to making your day a pleasant one. All you have to do it start up the CD player and live amongst Big Ben and the Tower of London.

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