Epic in both themes and sound, Advice from the Happy Hippopotamus, quite frankly, flirts with genius. Think 'Song of Myself' in sound. No, I am not kidding.
Cloud Cult is the creative brainchild of Craig Minowa and to understand his band's epic ambitions and sound, you have to understand him. Hoping to enlighten people about environmental issues, Minowa began writing and performing songs in the early '90s. During breaks at gigs, he would hand audience members fact sheets about the environment, and, as could be expected in dives, he was often met by a less-than-passionate response. Though a singer concerned about the environment sounds a bit cliché, Minowa's concern was genuine -- he was simultaneously pursuing a degree in environmental science -- and this zeal foreshadowed the intense love for life Minowa would express in future recordings. Obsessed with making an album, he spent a year recording at home, substituting household items for actual instruments because of financial limitations. To Minowa's surprise, the album, titled The Shade Project, drew enough attention to attract several label offers.
This unexpected and modest success led to the formation of Cloud Cult, a band that describes itself as a "not-for-profit, music-centered environmental and philosophical movement". Yes, this all sounds a bit over the top and pretentious, but like U2, Cloud Cult's sound is as vast as its aspirations. This is not only because Minowa has epic visions, but also because his band, which is more of a collective, combines the basic rock lineup with cello, viola, flute, and an assortment of unidentifiable sounds. Adding to this broad palette of instruments is Minowa's life experience, which has recently included unthinkable tragedy. In February of 2002, his two-year-old son passed away in his sleep, and the ensuing grief led to the end of Minowa's marriage. Rather than crumbling he turned to music, and the eventual appreciation for life that comes out of death and demise is beautifully articulated in Cloud Cult's music. Advice from the Happy Hippopotamus is Minowa's song of himself, a poetic expression of solace and glee among the ruins of unexpected suffering.
As far as its sound is concerned, Cloud Cult combines indie pop, jazzy improvisation, chamber pop, folk, and classic pop. These elements do not surface in every song, but drift in and out of the album, adding to Hippopotamus's celebratory yet elegiac sound. Minowa's voice falls in the tradition of high-pitched screamer/crooners such as Wayne Coyne, Isaac Brock, and Doug Martsch, and like these singers, Minowa emphasizes sincerity over technicality. Lyrically, Minowa deals with the weighty issues, such as the meaning of life, the reality of death, and what happens afterwards. In "What Happens at the End", for example, Minowa warbles, "I am just wondering comes at the end / I hope I meet you again / You'll be a hummingbird / And I'll be your bumblebee / And we'll fall in love in our new skin". Such playful yet profound musings reflect Cloud Cult's two main passions: nature and life. Indeed, even when the topic matter veers towards the somber, the lyrics always include an element of hope.
Take tracks eight and nine, "Transistor Radio" and "What It Feels Like to Be Alive". The first is a simple folk song that depicts a deceased grandfather leading his grandson through life by talking to him through a transistor radio. Though the grandson never knows where the radio is directing him, he always feels secure on life's path: "I grabbed my backpack and my flashlight and a bag of caramel corn / I got my bicycle and the radio and I headed on the road / And I said 'I'm ready for what I'm about to see - yep'". As the guitar line rolls like the wheels of the bicycle, pizzicato strings gently pluck in the background. Eventually, the grandfather tells his grandson that he must leave, and the narrator realizes that life has no particular destination, but the journey is always wondrous: "It's been years since I've heard my transistor radio / Yet I keep going to where it seems I'm meant to go". The song, quite simply, is devastatingly beautiful. The next track, "What It Feels Like to Be Alive", is nothing but 51 seconds of Minowa prompting his audience to scream in celebration of being alive. While this may sound odd in print, in its context it sounds fitting and reminds the listener that life, indeed, is an amazing spectacle.
The confusing transition from innocence to experience is a common theme on this album. "Training Wheels" is a slow, trippy dirge about a child riding his bike without training wheels for the first time: "Today's the day we take off your training wheels / We think you can do it / Do you think you can do it?" The training wheels, of course, serve as a metaphor for innocence and the child doubts his ability to navigate through life without crashing into the ground. As the narrator encourages the child to ride without wheels, a soft electric guitar picks notes over a soft voices repeating "How are you doing?" The overall effect is both charming and haunting. Other songs explore the transition from innocence to experience in the next world. "Light at the End of the Tunnel" contains no lyrics, only a recording of a woman describing a near death experience. As strings swell to a crescendo, the woman realizes that she doesn't want to leave this life.
Overall, Advice from the Happy Hippopotamus is an entrancing album that defies categorization. Minowa has turned immense pain and passion into a genuine and enthralling expression of optimism. Every element in this album -- both lyrically and musically -- captures the haunting beauty of life, creating a mosaic of sound that compiles bits of memories and places them into a larger, more meaningful, context. True, this album is a challenging listen, but only because something approaching genius is at play here, and the modern ear isn't accustomed to hearing such skill. This collection of songs left me crying, smiling, and pressing the play button repeatedly. Most of all, it left me wanting to hold and dance with my son, which is probably the biggest compliment I could ever give Minowa.