Goes well with: Big Star, T. Rex, Exploding Hearts, Weezer
There are few higher compliments than suggesting an album makes the listener feel like a teenager again, but that's exactly what Happy Birthday does.
Word is, Sub Pop signed this band after something like five shows, and if one's hype radar is functioning properly, that could be a bad sign. But the label placed its bet well. With six absolute stunners—“Girls FM,” “2 Shy,” “Perverted Girl,” “Subliminal Message,” “I Want to Stay (I Run Away)” and “Fun”—Happy Birthday is proof that great things can stem from industry signing sprees.
To be fair, songwriter Kyle Thomas has a steady track record with his other projects—including Feathers, Witch and the underrated King Tuff—so this couldn't have been a complete surprise. What is surprising, however, is how the world he creates is so perfectly insulated. He's absorbed the innocence of '70s power-pop and all its subsequent revivals, plus elements of '70s glam and FM rock, '90s indie and pill-popping suburban punk into a warm cavern where we can hang out all day, smoke pot, drink Boone's Farm and watch reruns of Taxi and Happy Days.
Happy Birthday is so good that it makes most bands doing throwback rock look hopelessly convoluted. One listen to this, and they'll want to hang out at Thomas' pad, too.
Goes well with: The Clientele, Belle and Sebastian, The Byrds
It's tough to believe it's been close to 20 years since Teenage Fanclub released their breakthrough album, Bandwagonesque. A perfect melding of over-driven guitars, pristine harmonies and smart songwriting, it was probably a bit too pretty for the first generation of Lollapalosers, but it certainly proved that harmonies had a place in alternative rock.
These days, they've dropped so far off the map that I've had to retire my Teenage Fanclub shirt due to repeated dirty looks shot my way at supermarkets. If those morons had any taste, they'd realize that Teenage Fanclub is a rock band from Glasgow and not an advertisement for pedophiles. Actually, make that “folk band from Glasgow”—there's very little rock left in 'em these days.
Luckily, this feels natural. I'd rather hear them delivering great acoustic harmonies than writing fake grunge songs (see their '93 album, Thirteen, for proof that this is a bad idea). Here they veer toward the orchestrated pop of labelmates The Clientele rather than the distorted Crazy Horse guitars that peppered their earlier releases.
I just get the feeling Teenage Fanclub have reached a point in which they'd prefer to write music that goes better with a cup of tea than a six pack of beer. The NPR crowd will probably love this; the NFL crowd may not.
Cracked Love and Other Drugs
Goes well with: Mclusky, Mudhoney, The Stooges
One of the most appealing characteristics of garage rock is the opportunity it presents for relatively smart people to indulge in their tendency to be assholes, which, strangely, often reveals their hidden charms. Get wasted in a basement, write tunes about being an underachieving misanthrope, throw in a few melodies and hope some of it sticks.
Seattle's Unnatural Helpers understand this. At first listen, it's not so apparent. Until you realize that Cracked Love is less concerned with style than fun. And it has memorable hooks. And funny lyrics. And it actually rocks. Then, you remember that garage rock can be great when it's not perpetrated by pouting fashionistas with $60 haircuts who wear sunglasses indoors because it “looks cool.”
The antithesis of “serious artists,” Unnatural Helpers are dispensable, and they know it, so they're not pulling any punches. On Cracked Love, they continually ignore their better judgment, as drummer / singer Dean Whitmore sings, “My lungs are killing me / but I'm never gonna give it up / My liver—useless as can be / but I'm never gonna give it up.”
This is the kind of band that's in short supply these days—they're smart about being dumb and far more fun than you'd expect, grinning wildly as they taunt the crowd with insults before shotgunning beers with them after the show.
Unnatural Helpers play Sunday, May 16, at Bar Pink.