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Happy Birthday

Happy Birthday

[Sub Pop; 2010]

By ; March 18, 2010 

Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

“Sub Pop Signs Band With No Songs” the Internet gurgled. Because now we sign bands on the first breath of hype, so we can tear them down by the time they’ve played their first gig! Except it turns out the band was only signed without any songs on their Myspace, which isn’t quite the same thing. And besides, based on first single “Girls FM,” you get the sense that Sub Pop only needed to hear that single song before snapping them up. It’s one of those songs that feels like it’s always been there, waiting in the song aether for someone to pluck it out and lay it down on four-track. “I’m always on the same frequency / Girls FM, Girls FM / And everybody’s lookin’ like a girl to me / Girls FM, Girls FM” they croon, fuzzy guitars erupting around them. It even gets a warped breakdown, knotty guitars leading the way back into the light as the chorus dawns again. It’ll live in your head for days. It’s the sort of song people say would be number one in a parallel universe – a brighter, better universe.

It’s the work of Happy Birthday, the latest project from Kyle Thomas aka King Tuff, whose brilliant 2008-by-way-of-1978 album Was Dead sounds like a great lost power pop album you might stumble across on some crate-digging blog. Now he’s picked up some extra band members and embellished his sound, which has only served to highlight his songwriting prowess. “Girls FM” is just the opening salvo on an album packed with fantastic, slightly skewed songs. It deals in this sort of scuffed, second-hand power pop, like Sweet, The Raspberries and Big Star playing on a radio that’s not quite tuned in to the station. It’s reminiscent of nights spent in bed, huddling under the covers with a portable radio, sneaking listens to the Top 40 countdown. Except when I was doing that, it was all Bryan Adams and MC Hammer, so this is that parallel universe again, a fever dream of lost radio hits that never quite happened, playing on K-PNK – the sound of the hauntological now.

When an album leads off with a track as good as “Girls FM,” I always worry that they’ve shot their wad too early and all that’s left is a series of minor disappointments. So when Happy Birthday follows up with “Too Shy,” which swoons like Elliott Smith covering Badfinger, it feels like a dream come true. And the great songs don’t stop there; “Maxine the Teenage Eskimo” is ’60s cotton candy unspooling in clouds of pink falsetto, all teen dream wistfulness and milk bar harmonies. “Pink Strawberry Shake” turns the same milk bar into a sea of gleeful fuzztoned hormones (“I wanna hold your glass / And kiss your pink thumb / I wanna suck your straw / And eat your pink cherries / Pink strawberry shake, I’m in love”), sticky-sweet melodies frothing everywhere.

Even among all these wonderful songs, slow dance “Subliminal Message” stands out as the best thing here, a shaggy ballad that sways its way up to a perfect chorus that coasts on the back of this gorgeous, glowing synth line that lights up the entire song. Like most of the tracks here, it has switchbacks and hidden corners, melodic tricks and tempo shifts to wrong-foot you, keeping you off balance so that when you get back to the chorus and that luminous synth hook it feels all the sweeter. It’s not all sweetness and light, however. “Cracked” scuzzes things up with feedback and cardboard stomp and “Zit” is bonehead garage punk that doesn’t give a shit if it’s parody or not because it’s too busy having fun. Closing ballad “Fun” has echoes of Pinkerton-era Weezer (or Ben Kweller’s debut album if you’re really paying attention), bedroom self-deprecation turned into a singalong, a homemade string section taking us out into the night.

As good as these diversions are, the band’s at their best when they’re playing to their strengths. When these ramshackle songs crack open to reveal their deliciously sweet pop centers, it makes your heart beat faster and makes the world look like the kind of brighter, better place where these songs are always on the radio, playing late at night when you’re under the covers trying to keep up with the hits. And in that place, Kyle Thomas is a star. Whether he’s posing as King Tuff or making you fall in love with the girl at your birthday party, you need his songs in your life.


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