One of the most recent signees to historic Sub Pop is a relative newcomer to the music scene. Happy Birthday, for those of you stumbling upon the band, just formed in 2008, and their self-titled album is their first official recording. This album fits nicely into the new fascination with fuzz-riddled guitar pop, though the band isn’t just a one trick pony. While the majority of the album is filled with charm, there are a few missteps that keep it from taking off.
Happy Birthday kicks off their debut with one of the catchiest tunes of 2010, “Girls FM.” Jangling guitar rings hollowly in the background as Kyle Thomas wails a bit, just before the drums are added. Once you get to the chorus, where Ruth Garbus joins Thomas, you can’t escape the sugary sweetness. Placing this song up front establishes a lot of the music as surf-pop, though the group does go in different directions at times.
One of the tricks the band employs to great effect is to have Kyle’s vocals carefully backed by the warmth of Ruth’s voice. “2 Shy” utilizes this tool, and it moves the music away from garage band to polished power-pop. Such a combination creates blissful moments for the band, and they pull it out just often enough to make it memorable. You’ll see the same elements in “Maxine the Teenage Eskimo,” which might be the secret gem of this album. It’s late in the collection, and this general sweetness comes in a bit later in the song; stay with this one folks, as you’ll be rewarded greatly.
Interestingly, there are some odd Marc Bolan-esque vocals floating throughout spots on this record. “Subliminal Message” has that trademark T. Rex guitar, and Thomas seems to channel a bit of Marc’s vocal inflections on his delivery–this actually makes for a really fixating slow jam. Unfortunately, they return to this same formula for “Pink Strawberry Shake,” at a point in the album when you’re really looking to be revitalized by something new; you might find yourself bogged down at this point.
Still, a new band has to have some drawbacks, right? Well, this is true of Happy Birthday. At times, they seem to have a little bit too much simplicity in their songwriting, which can be translated to childishness. “Zit” is just one of those songs that demonstrates some of these weaknesses; it’s a juvenile song, both lyrically and musically. While the lyrics throughout definitely hint at the unpolished quality of the group, this song takes it a bit too far. Clearly, there is room for simplicity and youthfulness, but it kind of goes too far at points on the album. This is just another factor the band will eventually work out on the next album, as they sometimes don’t seem to know when to hold back, pushing songs beyond a point of impact for the listener.
However, don’t end the album without listening to closer, “Fun.” Yes, it does use that recently popularized style of mundane lyrical songwriting, but there is a touch of real brilliance here. Some might recall Superdrag or Teenage Fanclub, and fans of those bands will surely love the ending to this album. All things considered, Happy Birthday‘s debut has demonstrated room for growth, with touches of brilliance throughout, so we should expect a solid second outing based on the charms of this beginning.
Download: Happy Birthday – Girls FM [MP3]