Trends come and go in music all the time: 80’s synth revival, shoegaze, post-punk, post-punk lite. We see them rise up with a glut of support behind them, peak with that support spoiling into acrimony, and then one day they’re gone. When they get close to critical mass, it’s pretty easy to just lump all the like-minded music together and dismiss it. And lo-fi guitar pop, which has taken a spotlight in indie music in the past couple years, is dangerously close to that peak.
But on their debut, Happy Birthday reminds us that the sound, as oversaturated as it may be, can still work. They cut the cynicism — that nagging feeling that people are trying to cash in on a moment — by giving us an album of guileless and joyful songs that channel bubblegum pop and unaffected rock ‘n’ roll effortlessly.
If you heard frontman Kyle Thomas when he operated under the name King Tuff, then it won’t surprise you to hear this is an infectious set. His 2008 record, King Tuff Was Dead, has a much clearer fidelity, but it deals in dreamy, jangling pop and hits the mark just as often as this new record does.
And, like King Tuff, Happy Birthday won’t sit still. Along with bandmates Chris Wiseman and Ruth Garbus, Thomas built an album that mixes scuzzy fidelity with the sweetest harmonies, but stylistically it bounces all over the map. “Girls FM” filters tight, Holly-esque melodies through the haze of mid-’90s dream pop, while “Perverted Girl” comes out of nowhere with a loose jangle straight out of Marquee Moon. All through the record, these disparate styles clash effectively, as classic AM gold melodies get bruised by lean guitars and driving drums. And running that mix through the fuzzy lo-fi here somehow adds clarity by dulling the edges on these opposites and helping them meld.
Perhaps the best thing Happy Birthday does is twist our expectations as listeners. Besides these clever stylistic combinations, the distorted scuzz and Thomas’s nasally bleat set us up for an album of sneering, bratty pop. But instead what comes through that gauze is sweet, almost timid. Album standout “Subliminal Message” is spacey keyboard pop, with lofty vocal harmonies. The chorus bursts for with, “I’m sending a subliminal message to your heart.” It should be schmaltzy and way over the top. And it is, but in a totally believable way.
In fact, the least believable moment on the record comes in “Zit,” when the band finally matches some actual punky barking up with its energetic sound. It’s the only moment on the album that falls flat. Because, while this does fall in with a pretty crowded lo-fi movement going on, Happy Birthday is also an unabashed pop record unafraid to wear its grainy heart on its sleeve. Which is why, after the peak comes and the dust has settled and we talk about this lo-fi pop in the past tense (at least for a while), these guys from Brattleboro, Vt. will likely still be standing.