There’s more than ’90s nostalgia on Happy Birthday's self-titled debut
Happy Birthday (Sub Pop)
The world is full of killjoys, those pooh-poohing types who never hesitate to let you know that the things you enjoy are not their idea of fun. (Music critics arguably fall into this category, but that’s a discussion for another day.) For some reason, Happy Birthday has found itself in the crosshairs of such self-appointed arbiters of taste. The Brattleboro, Vermont–based trio’s very existence seems to have irked the skinny-jeaned snobs who have Brooklyn Vegan bookmarked on their MacBooks.
When the influential music blog reported last December that Happy Birthday had signed with Sub Pop, anonymous posters quickly sprang into action, declaring the band to be “a massive joke”, “douches”, “subpar”, “hacks”, and “garbage”. Yikes. The implication was that Happy Birthday was some talentless basement band that the label had plucked from deserved obscurity and foisted upon a dubious public.
In truth, however, each of Happy Birthday’s members has a long musical pedigree. Singer-guitarist Kyle Thomas, drummer Ruth Garbus, and bassist Chris Weisman (each one is a singer and multi-instrumentalist, but they’re identified here by their primary roles) clearly know exactly what they’re doing. Thomas’s career has probably been the most notable of the three; he’s the frontman for stoner-rock quartet Witch, which also features a moonlighting J. Mascis behind the drum kit.
The Dinosaur Jr. connection makes perfect sense. Anyone old enough to remember when the term “indie rock” actually referred to a specific genre of music will find something to love about the three-piece’s self-titled Sub Pop debut. (And hopefully younger listeners will love it too, because if you were listening to college radio when Pavement first walked among us, you probably stopped buying new music around the time you were registering your kids for U6 soccer.) The lo-fi production, slacker-chic vocals, and bubble-and-scrape guitars are sure signs that Thomas, Garbus, and Weisman would have been in their glory in the days when Chapel Hill, North Carolina, seemed like the centre of the musical universe.
There’s more going on here than ’90s nostalgia, though. “Cracked” combines punk primitivism and pure pop in a way that brings to mind Jay Reatard jamming with the Cavern Club–era Fab Four. Later on, “Zit” blasts out of the same garage, all fuzz-tone and fury. Putting the lie to the notion that Happy Birthday’s members lack instrumental chops, Thomas doubles his lead vocal on the verses of “Subliminal Message” with a note-for-note guitar harmony that would have Doug Martsch nodding in approval.
Best of all is the opening number, “Girls FM”, which boasts a synth-boosted chorus complete with Beach Boys–style backup singing. It sounds like a summertime radio hit from an alternate universe, one where sloppy indie rock is king and the kind of joyless turds who post snarky comments on Brooklyn Vegan aren’t allowed near computers.
Download This: “Girls FM”