Delivering love-centric, teen-style, classic-infused pop rock can be hard to do with a straight face. It's so easy to make cloying, mind-numbingly catchy music in the "genre" (let's call it a super-genre). And when you're bending numerous influences into one band or one album, it can make listeners struggle to find their footing when it's done poorly, but when it's done right complicatedly simply music can be staggeringly amazing. In the case of the latter, of successes, comes Happy Birthday and their self-titled first album. The Vermont band brings out heartfelt and complex pop-rock tunes that are almost dance ready, but always emotionally effecting. Through classic song composition and standard progressions, built in with garnishes of chaotic looping, growling effects and lyrical nuances (a combo of harmonies and taxed, melodic chant), Happy Birthday presents eleven tracks that may take a listen or two to grab onto completely, but ultimately stick with you like fine pop-rock should.
Most impressive is the mix of genre here, as touched on above. The opener "Girls FM" is a pure '70s punk-pop track, loaded with post-Beach Boys style sentiments on love and those feelings that it's everywhere and the obsession with attainment. "2 Shy" falls back into a mindset of lamentation, being the person who knows how to talk to people, but is just too shy to do it. These are the sentiments of the young, but they ring universally true. Even as we get older, love and meeting people can become obsessive aspects of life that are as much a boon as a curse. The album turns suddenly with "Cracked," a punk-driven pseudo-screamer that seethes with frustration. Then another turn, to the softer side with "Perverted Girl," which uses a gentler melody and a catchy riff to drive a song about doubt and confusion. But the best song on the album is the one that follows, "Subliminal Message," about unrequited love that uses beautiful harmony and has a brilliantly catchy and retro chorus to drive the track. And there lies the lyrical gem, for a song about unrequited love: "Close your eyes/ Concentrate/ I'm send a subliminal message to your heart." It's a brilliant song that brings the sincerity of the album to an initial head, and in a lot of ways it's the big payoff for the album, but it also marks the depth of Happy Birthday's writing (both of song and lyrics) because the rest of the album seems to evade pop-punk conventions for a more individual imprint. "Eyes Music" is a dense, electronic, chanting swirl of elements, "Maxine the Teenage Eskimo" drops back into '60s surf-rock with "Good Vibrations"-esque sound play, "I Want to Stay (I Run Away)" feels like dreamy '80s pop mixed with '90s radio-rock (with another exceptionally hooking riff). "Pink Strawberry Shake" and "Zit" find similarly strange bedfellows, attaching to '60s power-pop and something like the Kinks meets the Sex Pistols, respectively. And it all closes with the antithetically named "Fun," a song about not being fun, being eternally depressed and distant from the people around.
Happy Birthday is a case where a band really goes all out on the first album, covering a lot of musical and emotional ground with the skill of a mad scientist. There are a lot of experiments on this album that all succeed, and considering all the disparate styles and changes in tone, it's a compelling listen. At times manic, and at times depressive, Happy Birthday's album reflects the chaotic flow of life in youth and in age. They speak to the struggles of the wayward soul and the staunch cynic alike and nail every note. This is one of those albums, one that I bought on a whim, with very, very little idea what I was getting into, and it blows me away, time and again. This is a band to latch onto, to recommend, and to watch grow. Happy Birthday can travel a nearly infinite number of paths from here, and I'm betting wherever they go they'll flourish. Check out Happy Birthday's MySpace page to hear what I've so heavily promoted.
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