Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday
A goofy and endlessly catchy guitar-pop debut
When Sub Pop announced they were signing Happy Birthday, it was tempting to consider the whole thing a lark. The label described their music as "comic-book pop," they had no songs publicly available and, well, their name is Happy Birthday. As it turns out, Sub Pop's flip unveiling was a perfect introduction to the band's endearingly irreverent world. This is a frewheeling, kinda goofy record, with song titles like "Maxine the Teenage Eskimo" and choruses like, "In a perfect world, I'd be perverted, girl." It's a testament to the songwriting — deceivingly inventive and undeniably catchy — that Happy Birthday's effect is so lasting despite feeling so tossed-off as it unfolds.
Songwriter Kyle Thomas (also the mastermind behind the wildly underrated King Tuff) has a serious '70s jones — his songs dip in and out of powerpop, punk and glam, sounding classic but also refreshingly rickety. Fans of post-Nuggets guitar-pop like to talk about "should-be-hits" — entries on a parallel-universe Top 40 where autotune and guyliner, for better or for worse, never existed. Happy Birthday's got a handful: "Subliminal Message," with its sweeping synth line, tricky descending melody and perfectly breathy chorus vocal, "2 Shy," a great mid-tempo fuzzy guitar shuffle, and album opener "Girls FM" — maybe the best of the lot — a bratty blast with a twinkling chorus, and the best, most immediate hook on the record.
The band's genesis involves Thomas recruiting a couple of friends to "play his new pop songs because he was too scared to play by himself." Any fear the frontman may have had isn't apparent here — the playing, and singing especially, is exuberant and assured, even when notes aren't quite hit — but the album certainly benefits from the carefree spontaneity that comes from a few friends getting together and bashing it out. Thomas is the story, though — a nasal, girl-crazy pop savant who has delivered an impressive set of irresistible, near-perfect pop songs.