Buy This: Happyness – Weird Little Birthday
This was a pretty tough week to pick just one album to buy from the list of great new releases to choose from. For the record, I don’t think anyone should pass up on new stuff from Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, The Silence, Les Marinellis, Courtney Barnett or Bombadil dropping this week. As a matter of fact, I suspect that given a few extra weeks of listening Barnett’s debut LP Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, out on Mom + Pop, could have taken the title. Nevertheless, this week’s champion is a not just a contender for the week, but possibly one you’ll be hearing about a lot when it’s time to start arguing over the best albums of the year.
Happyness is a 3-piece alternative rock band from London, consisting of Jonny Allan (Guitar, Bass, Vocals), Benji Compston (Guitar, Vocals) and Ash Cooper (Drums). All three members write the songs and are known for swapping roles within the studio. Having known each other throughout their teens — they had been in various other bands before they formed Happyness –Compston, Allan, and Cooper found themselves together writing music in a studio under railway arches in Bermondsey, South London. After performances under a few different monikers, the three-piece finally settled on Happyness, and set about touring the U.K. They were soon picked up by indie label Weird Smiling and entered the studio soon after to record their debut album, Weird Little Birthday.
Weird Little Birthday was actually released in Japan last year and is only receiving its western release this week. This is the capitulation of a tremendous amount of press excitement following the release of the groups debut self-titled EP in 2013 and the Anything I Do Is All Right EP last year. All the while, the trio have been touring constantly with some indie heavyweights, like Speedy Ortiz, Avi Buffalo and Ezra Furman. The result was a band getting hailed as the ‘next big thing’ by NME, The Guardian, Sunday Times, Q, Uncut, NPR and Stereogum all before their first album was released.
There have been a lot of ‘alternative rock revival’ bands to emerge in the last few years. I find myself making comparisons to the Pixies, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Pavement. Again, I’ll be doing it when talking about Happyness. But, it is important to make a distinction where I believe Happyness makes a key step away. Typically, these albums come off sounding a lot more like homage than original artistic statement. Jesus, I feel like an asshole for even writing the words ‘original artistic statement’ together. Regardless, that is what Weird Little Birthday is.
“I’m the motherfucking birthday boy. Don’t steal my thunder, Baby Jesus.”
-Happyness, “Baby Jesus (Jelly Boy)”
It is extremely accurate to say that Happyness sound like the bastard child of Pavement and Sparklehorse. It is also extremely accurate to say that they have mined those influences to create a compelling, complete, and all-consuming record. In ten years of reviewing music, Weird Little Birthday is the first time I find myself attempting to use the word ‘masterpiece’ without even the faintest hint of irony or exaggeration. It is simply the best word I can find to describe how this album twists and travels from beginning to end. As of this writing, I’m still debating whether or not the album deserves a full ten star recording. It would be the second I’ve given in over a thousand album reviews.
Weird Little Birthday is a testament to how much patience can pay off, both in the way the band approaches the recording and the way the listener approaches the listen. Happyness doesn’t play for cheap thrills. There aren’t many (if any) hooks or immediate ear worm choruses. The grooves need to wash over you over the course of the entire record. If you give them the time to do so, this album will slowly, but surely move its way to the front of your collection.
The key to Happyness’ success is in allowing the lyrics to do the talking for the group. It is one thing to match the timing and vocal approach of Stephen Malkmus or Mark Linkous. It is another altogether to match them as writers. Somehow, Allan and Compston somehow do it together, while seamlessly switching vocal duties. Sardonic introspection is the kind of thing that can easily become obnoxious without the necessary delicate lyric writing hand. It takes a real skill to write the snotty, piercing words in a song like “Montreal Rock Band Somewhere” and remain endearing. It doesn’t hurt that the song also features an absolutely killer bass line.
Happyness is a strange nut. Yes, they do sound a lot like other bands. No, that doesn’t mean they are making anything stale or unoriginal. If the material is this strong, it really doesn’t matter what style they used to put it together. I had a music teacher in high school that wrote a quote on the chalkboard during the first day of class. “Music is evolutionary, not revolutionary,” or something like that. Regardless, I took the point as being that there isn’t anything new under the sun, so dig what you dig. And I dig Weird Little Birthday.