Upon first listen, and most especially on the opening track, “The Big Bang”, you get the impression this is the sort of album destined for a critically acclaimed tag — the sort of release only music hacks tied to their computers and forced to listen to stacks of albums over and over again might like. The type that would be instantly appreciated when compared to the coagulated mass we’ve already exposed ourselves to. If that’s true (and most of the band’s reviews have been favourable), then put me down as the one who initially didn’t feel this way.
Sure, at first you hear the Nick Cave comparisons too, though as the Vanity Set is led by Bad Seeds drummer James Sclavunos, this is an easy connection to make. And this in itself might not be a bad thing, though of course there are people who would argue that there’s need for another Cave kicking around, as the real thing is still alive and well.
The feeling though is short lived, however, as after the opening cut the Vanity Set sound veers from that of the Bad Seeds to something more akin to Canadian indie pop darlings the Dears, a band often derided for trying to sound like the Smiths, or even more cloyingly, Blur. And though comparisons in this case feel necessary, as the Vanity Set sound reminiscent of much and nothing all at once, listening to Little Stabs of Happiness makes it clear that the Dears don’t have this much musical scope and historical perspective in their own quest for indie hip.
It isn’t as if this collective isn’t obviously trying hard, though, with songs wandering rapidly between sounds, keys, and time changes; this though they are at their inventive best in quiet settings, pieces in which Sclavunos’s voice can interact well with the already cinematic musical scope, and most specifically when it robs the musical history books. A case in point is “Imp of the Perverse”, a comfortable and casual jazzy number that would not be out of place in the 1920s. In these instances, they really sound genuinely like their own band, far removed from anything you might be able to conjure up as a comparison point. Namely because there aren’t many bands making music like this, and that’s exciting, though as Sclavunos sings on “No Regrets”: “what it lacks in substance, it makes up in style”.
“Some Little Bird” also works well, once again making the most of genre meshing and toning down the group’s dramatic impulses, though still finding room for a choral bridge that could replace a carol at a Christmas time church. “Morning Glory Day” is just quirky enough to add colour and humour to the album, though still strong enough not to be cute, as Sclavunos has a pleasant enough baritone and his lyrics are often humorous.
If you like your music subtle and slightly more opaque though, this is not the band for you. It is, in fact, the place subtlety goes to die. Operatic and melodramatic, almost to the point of irking (though not crossing that line), Little Stabs somehow also doesn’t really truly excite either, unless you count an earnest as all mighty hell cover of the Bee-Gees’ “I Started a Joke”, a cover that, set among the rest of the songs, comes across as slightly moving in its Mike Patton-esque leanings. But this is all on first listen, and interesting, thoughtful music almost always warrants more. And that’s the point, as after thinking all that I’m not sure I like or hate this, but I’m still compelled to listen and give it a chance, and maybe in comparison to much else, that’s enough to garner a recommendation.