Recently I’ve been more than a little preoccupied with making a list of the 50 greatest debut albums of all time (please don’t ask, it’s a long story and I’ve currently only managed to whittle the list down to around 137.) As part of this process I’ve been assessing the required constituent parts of a great debut album. It must have an energy and self-assurance. And while some naivety may be understandable, it must have a ‘fresh out of the traps’ cockiness.
Weird Little Birthday, is the first album by Happyness, released on Monday 16 June, and it bears all the hallmarks of a pretty impressive debut. Mature in execution and exuberant in delivery, the album mixes bitter/sweet tendencies in the perfect ratio.
Musically the album is reasonably diverse, however the intelligent, amusing and at times downright caustic lyrics are present throughout. In ‘Baby, Jesus (Jelly Boy)’ we kick off with a slow lazy tune with almost whispered foul-mouthed lyrics that successfully tread that very fine line between screamingly funny and vaguely sinister.
I’ve seen Happyness described by others as ‘college rock’, but this does them a disservice as they slip effortlessly from being power-pop experts on the peculiarly titled ‘Great Minds Think Alike, All Brains Taste the Same’ to melodic, laid-back rockers, delivering Granddaddy style (and quality) tunes like ‘Orange Luz’ which is one of the many high points to be found here.
Ed Harcourt pops in to deliver vocals on ‘Pumpkin Noir’, sounding for all the world like he’s traded in his microphone for two paper cups and a couple of yards of string. It’s beautiful in quite a dark way and dark in quite a beautiful way.
If I have one small criticism I found the meandering three minute instrumental introduction to the almost title track ‘Weird Little Birthday Girl’ to be almost three minutes too long, but once the vocal arrives it’s a tune that gently gnaws at your brain, before finally redeeming itself with one gloriously brief lyrical tribute to ‘Cars and Girls’, Prefab Sprout’s classic tribute to Brucie (that’s Springsteen, not Forsyth). If you’re not paying attention you’ll miss it, but if you are paying attention there’s a very good chance that you’ll grin broadly at the few brief snatched lyrics.
Intelligent power-pop makes a return with ‘It’s on You’, possibly the only track in popular music (or any other genre) to name check the noble calling of Phlebotomist. And the caustic humour is very much in evidence on ‘Leave the Party’ in which we hear about turning up at a party, killing everyone there and heading home. It’s a killer track in more ways than one.
It’s almost certainly the mournful ‘Lofts’ that’s my personal favourite here though, and as the penultimate track it tends to overshadow the album’s closing tune, ‘Monkey in the City’, which is a bit of a shame because this is an understated gem too.
It’s certainly one of 2014’s great debut albums; whether it will make my top 50 it’s fair to say that only time will tell. It has, however, swelled my current shortlist to 138.
You can see Happyness for free at Pop Recs Ltd in Sunderland’s Fawcett Street on Wednesday 18 June.
Reviewer: Neil Pace