Pretend You're Happy, Pretend You're Happy
(Fake Four Inc., CD)
Earlier this month I reviewed a live performance by Brattleboro-based collective Pretend You’re Happy at Burlington’s Radio Bean (“Not Happy, Blame MySpace,” January 14). The review easily ranked among the harshest ever to appear in the esteemed pages of Seven Days. And, frankly, rightly so. For reasons too numerous to recount here, the show was simply awful. Or, as front man Jeremiah Morelock Brown put it in an email following the review’s publication, “Yeah, that show sucked.” But everyone deserves a mulligan. And Pretend You’re Happy’s self-titled debut is theirs.
The album begins with “Everyone’s Tired in Boston.” Part overdriven 3/4 rocker, part lazily sinister carnival sideshow — and occasionally both at once — it’s a schizophrenic curiosity, laden with a sort of controlled anarchy that is immediately compelling and largely marks the entire record. It is a far better introduction to the band than many likely received that fateful night at the Bean.
“I’ll know how to give without contempt and be open without fear,” sings PYH brainchild Brown, leading off the next track, “The Other Side of the Earth.” That sentiment, whether intentional or not, could be an apt description of the ragtag consortium’s philosophical approach to the material. With 14 musicians playing everything from guitars and drums to clarinet, violin, synthesizers and a dog chain — really — trust is no doubt a valuable commodity.
At no point, in this song or the album, is the group perfect. But minor speckles in tuning, rhythm and melody lend the disc a fractured, humanized grace, particularly on numbers such as the winsome “If There’s No Light in this World” and the rollicking “Tear Down the Walls.” There is beauty in these blemishes.
The almost-eponymous track “Pretend You’re Happy Must Die” is the album’s cheekily moody centerpiece. Alternately brooding and celebratory, swelling string and horn arrangements soar and crash around Brown’s sweetly melancholic vocal ruminations. If Charlie Brown were an indie-folk songwriter, the result likely wouldn’t be too far off. And, yes, that’s a compliment.
The bulk of my frustration at Radio Bean stemmed from the chasm between the band’s singularly terrible live act — at least on that night — and their singularly charming recorded material, as evidenced here. While there’s no law that says a group must recreate recordings live to be a good band — or vice versa, for that matter — we do hold certain musical truths to be self-evident. Playing in (roughly) the same key as the rest of your band is chief among them. But even more important is capturing the essence of the music in whatever setting, or setup, you play. With this record, Pretend You’re Happy has done exactly that.