Although Charles Spearin is a founding member of Do Make Say Think and Broken Social Scene, but his solo output has little in common with those projects. At least in some major, pertinent respects. For one, his release, The Happiness Project, is not a pop album. It’s more of a sound experiment. And how you stand on sound experiments in general will largely influence your initial reaction to Spearin’s work. Yet I have to wonder whether a comfort level with experimental sound projects would actually make you more likely to enjoy The Happiness Project.
Spearin apparently asked his next door neighbors to talk to him about the topic of "happiness." He recorded these soundbytes, and each track is dedicated to one of these neighbors and their reflections. The monologues are then mixed with musical interludes and backbeats, some of which are jazzy, spacy and really pretty, as is the case with "Vanessa." However, on the same track, he also chooses irritating spare piano to plod along with Vanessa’s monologue.
On "Anna," he does much the same, except this time, he uses what sounds like a tenor saxophone. On the weakest track on the album, "Ondine," we hear an incredibly whiny child’s voice, made whinier by a matchup with what sounds like a viola, searing and straining. Spearin also repeats and remixes quotes from neighbors that do not seem compelling enough to justify the repetition. It makes the whole thing feel as if he’s trying to force greater meaning into relatively banal thoughts.
The thing is, Spearin is clearly talented. Some of the longer musical interludes between the dialogues are shimmery and dreamy, meditative. I kept hoping that they would continue, without the monologues interrupting the moment. And yet the monologues kept coming.
The exception is "Mr. Gowrie"; he has a pleasantly low, earthy voice, and Spearin’s musical accompaniment is lush. It shows that a sound experiment that involves human monologues needs to treat these monologues like instruments. The more musical the voices sound, the more these types of projects work.