Friday, 30 March 2012

One Happy Island - A Purpose Of The Surface


Album review by James M



When I start a review I like to set myself three or four paragraphs as a rough estimate. I’ll be honest – I hadn’t heard of One Happy Island when I was given their second album ‘A Purpose Of The Surface’. “This could be difficult”, I thought. I had little background information, I hadn’t listened to their debut record and filling up that much space about a band I was new to felt a daunting task. After a couple of listens to their February release it all became clear – it would take three or four paragraphs just to summarise this band's sound. See, eclectic is an overused word, I myself use it far too often for things that, in reality probably don’t deserve it. However One Happy Island are a band that deserve that accolade and then some. Described by themselves as “Ramshackle Indie Pop”, One Happy Island are a three-piece from Boston, Massachusetts who, after two members departed, have now settled and released their albums on London’s Odd Box Records. All three members share the duties on just about every instrument, which perhaps explains why it sounds like there could be seven or eight in the band on any one song.

It all starts off rather deceivingly. ‘The Song About To Start’ and ‘The Broken Toe’ are two perfectly crafted, joyous folk-pop songs in which Shannon and Brad split the vocals, one song a piece. With the glee of a nursery rhyme and the tempo of a child on a sugar rush, it shows a new side to the 21st century’s spin on all things wooden and folk related. It is of course a genre that’s had a revival in recent years with Laura Marling, Noah And The Whale and Fleet Foxes to name but a few that are often in the upper reaches of the UK charts. It’s refreshing to hear songs just as good, but with an added zest that puts to bed the old myth of acoustic pop songs only appealing to lonely old men and twee lovers alike. The best example of this comes just three tracks in, when it’s Meghan’s turn to take the mic on ‘Meet Me In The Chorus’. Stripped to the bare minimum instrument-wise, she sounds like a woman possessed as she races against a metronome to reach the chorus, which in its own subtle way never really occurs. It doesn’t matter anyway, as a cheeky blow on the kazoo reminds us it wasn’t a serious race anyway and was all just a bit of fun. The mood changes as the lights dim in ‘Lonely, Lonelier’. “She had a boyfriend then, that was 10 years ago. Now it’s almost criminal, the signals she sends”, a bleak tale of rejection and being unnoticed.

The album's middle section is perhaps its deepest and most thoughtful and is full of songs that could easily be hit singles in the making. ‘White Collar Disco’ is far from the free flowing club anthem the name might hint at, but while it’s hard to imagine it at a disco, the white collar aspect is here in a track that shows their workmanship is second to none when they want it to be. It’s arguably the biggest and boldest track on the record. ‘Darla Dunning-Kruger’ follows suit, a stripped down, acoustic country number that has more than a hint of Loudon Wainwright III’s version of 'High Wide & Handsome' to it. The pitch changes completely, not for the first time, in ‘Kiss Me, Peach’. The nearest One Happy Island get to a stone-cold indie smash hit. With layers of reverb covering Meghan’s, cheeky, yet bratty vocals, it’s an open letter demanding you pay her attention and well, why wouldn’t you want to kiss her when the offer is so blunt yet so sweet? With nothing but a clap-along drum beat, ‘Lock It Up’ is a one minute singalong that finishes before you’ve had time to analyse just what it was about. Much like a lot of the stuff on here, however personal it may be to the band, to the listener it’s just a recipe for entertainment and would perhaps be spoiled if you really knew what the hell was going on.

Perhaps not as bold as or well produced as the two stand-out tracks in the middle, the albums biggest treasure is found just before it’s time to say goodbye in ‘You Go Out’. What it may lack in epic proportions it makes up for in genuine emotion and heartfelt imagery. Once more, it’s the gorgeous, sincere vocals of Meghan that tear on your heart strings as she tells a story that just about anybody who’s ever loved can relate to. “I like when you go out” are her initial feelings before it hits her and she realises “I hate when you go out, it makes me feel anxious”, summing up that difficult moment when romance and jealousy overflow. Of course it’s fitting on a record where so many twists and turns overlap one another. This is of course the age of the iPod and all things shuffle related. I’m an old fashioned kind of guy who listens to an album from start to finish. ‘A Purpose Of The Surface’ sounds more a collection of songs thrown together on the first few listens, an erratic display of recorded moments placed side by side. After many listens the jigsaw is still as manic and hard to solve as it was the moment I took it out of the box. But I’m happy to say I don’t mind, and after nearly a month of trying, the reality is One Happy Island probably don’t want you to know how they did it. It’s an excellently made album from a band that are abrasive enough to make music the way they want to. It’s refreshing to hear though, and after the initial headaches and confusion, it’s a really well made indie-pop record.


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