Music

Happy Birthday: Happy Birthday

On their debut album, these Vermont scuzz-poppers deliver contagious hooks to fuel teenage desire. Both harsh and sweet, Happy Birthday breaks up the seriousness of indie music with unavoidably fun rock n' roll.


Happy Birthday

Happy Birthday

Label: Sub Pop
US Release Date: 2010-03-16
UK Release Date: 2010-03-15
Label Website
Amazon
iTunes

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.

8


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pay Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Music

Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Music

Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.

Television

HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.

Music

Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.

Music

Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.

Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Film

'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Music

Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.