Never mind that it's been six years since Senor Happy's debut -- it's a wonder that the band even had time to contemplate a follow-up album, let along record one. Bassist Joe McMahon and drummer Tom Polce have spent most of their waking hours since 1998 offering their chiseled chops to other projects: at last count, a collective total of eight bands and twenty-five albums.
To be honest, Senor Happy's eponymous album was one of the more prosaic rock albums in Boston's uncommonly fertile scene: inoffensively pleasant at its best and underwhelming at its worst. Thankfully, I'm Sorry manages to redeem the band's status, marrying the strong melodic sense of Fountains of Wayne with the gruff rockitude of Foo Fighters. So, in my head, the title of the band's new record is sort of an apology for such a lackluster debut.
I'm Sorry is tightly wound in bold, Herculean pop production. The stamp of ubiquitous Q Division producer Mike Denneen (Aimee Mann, Fountains of Wayne) is all over the album: cocked double-barrel guitar crunch, punchy bass guitar jabs, cross-stitched vocal harmonies, and drums that can shake a house off its foundation. Vocalist and guitarist Derek Schanche pens killer pop hooks; his airtight compositions have a way of sounding classically familiar without directly ripping off their influences. Overall, it's a huge step forward from the debut album, in terms of production, craft, and style. "Get Up and Go Out" and "Got You" are flush with the muscular threat of Cheap Trick and AC/DC, the latter embellished with some "Savoy Truffle"-esque horns. "She's New", "Someone Invaded Me", and "Even the Score" are proud owners of some serious sonic cajones, their crystal-clear, full-bodied arrangements a veritable master class in Rock Production 101. The subdued melancholia of the flugelhorn-punctuated "Drowning" is a prelude to "30 West and Vine", the album's sober close that describes a funeral of "suits all in the sun".
It's "Echoes and Falls" that provides the album with a spectacular centerpiece. The track coasts on wafer-thin acoustic guitars, an insistent drum pattern, and woozy electric guitar accents. An unexpected Herb Alpert-inspired horn section and banjo weave their way seamlessly into the song's final third, providing a repeat button-inducing fade-out. There's something about the song that sets it apart from the rest. It finds a temperate midpoint between the album's rockers and ballads, click-clacking along steadily, formidable in its restraint.
If there's one thing that warrants nitpicking, it's that Schanche doesn't appear to have much to say. So we get refrains like "I've got you and it's alright / I've got you and it's sunlight" and "Get yourself and go out late / Get yourself and go out straight" next to lines that are slightly more successful. It's not exactly poetry, but then again, I'm Sorry is a no-nonsense rock record that favors its blazing sound over introspective couplets. Senor Happy isn't concerned with making grand statements or stances, or exploring the possibilities of sound manipulation -- it just wants to rock you in an old fashioned way.
Boston's music community has been neglected in recent years, with other Q Division bands like the Gentlemen, Francine, and Loveless (Polce also serves as the latter's drummer) failing to achieve the national recognition they deserved. Add to that list Senor Happy, which has grown into a band that can stand up straight next to its peers. I'm Sorry improves so much upon the band's debut that at this rate, it'll be interesting to see what comes next. Hopefully it won't be another six years before we hear it.