Oftentimes you’ll hear of a record which was ahead of its time. Here the assertion is that the record in question was released some time before the genre or concepts it effectively demonstrated became en vogue in the greater mainstream.
But perhaps rarer are the records which are released well after a genre has peaked in popularity (behind its time?), yet nail that sound as well or better than any other release.
Happiness Hours Review
After four records released between 2007 and 2015 and evolving from uptempo lo-fi punk rock to more emo leaning power pop, The Sidekicks have found a winning formula on their fifth record, Happiness Hours.
Taking elements from all of their previous releases and combining it with better, more deliberate hooks than they’ve ever written, this is their most infectious collection of songs to date.
There were shades of this on their previous release, 2015’s “Runners in the Nerved World”, but the songs weren’t as focused and consequently weren’t as accessible as they are on the much more structured Happiness Hours.
As important as the strength of these songs is, the secret sauce was bringing in John Agnello to produce, whom I would advise The Sidekicks to never work without again.
His production brings a sparkling clarity and immediacy to these songs which you wouldn’t even know the band was missing until you heard it on this record.
Agnello certainly found a sweet spot which maintains the energy and spirit of the band, serving the songs well without it ever sounding overproduced.
I mentioned in opening that I view this record as being behind its time. I truly believe that if this was released in 1996 when poppy alternative rock was king of the airwaves for a brief time, this would be one of the biggest hits.
In particular I’m speaking of the main single released from the record “Don’t Feel Like Dancing”.
Don’t Feel Like Dancing doesn’t waste a second as it draws you straight into its confident jam of a verse as vocalist Steve Ciolek begins describing a night at a bar in Columbus from the first beat. He admits to missing someone and bitterly abstaining from dancing before reassuring himself that allowing himself to enjoy himself won’t undo the good times he had with that person.
The “undo” lyric especially will have you singing along at the top of your lungs as it makes up most of the chorus and one of the catchiest hooks on the album as the chords change underneath it to present it in different ways.
It’s an exceptional feat that this song can always manage to put a smile on my face anytime I hear it; the song itself as well as the entire record are literally aural Prozac as far as I’m concerned. I defy the listener to not tap their toe or at the very least manage a restrained head bop.
The record is full of feel good moments like this, ones that feel fresh yet oddly familiar.
It’s difficult to describe (which admittedly isn’t ideal when writing a review), but there’s some kind of magic working between the music and vocals which manages to drum up nostalgic feelings from my childhood that I can’t quite place.
One of my favorite moments is the chorus melody Ciolek delivers on my favorite gem of the record “Serpent in a Sun Drought”.
After delivering the start of the chorus with a kind of stoic restraint (which effectively matches the theme of the song) “I never yelled when I needed help”, he then dynamically follows it up by passionately crying out “I’ll just wait it out”. It feels strange comparing a vocal melody to a warm hug akin to something from childhood, but it’s the only way I can describe the latter line; it’s a lovely melody and the record is full of these (happiness) moments.
Outside of the title track, the songs mostly range from midtempo to uptempo, with a couple of stripped down versions of songs on the record acting as satisfying musical interludes. Specifically these work to build the anticipation and segue nicely into two of the catchier uptempo tracks, the previously mentioned Don’t Feel Like Dancing and another personal favorite of mine in the penultimate “Medium in the Middle”.
The fastest track on the album begins with a bang with a very nice bass-led anchor lick played by bassist Ryan Starinsky. This provides a nice angsty bedrock the verses slide and boil up over before the song satisfyingly explodes into the raucous chorus.
Incidentally I had the pleasure of catching The Sidekicks touring on this record in an intimate club in DC in 2019 and they absolutely crushed their set, with Medium in the Middle being the high point for me.
I’ve highlighted a few of them so far, but impressively the lyrics on this record are not afterthoughts or casualties of the hooks as is oftentimes the case when the music is this catchy.
Vocalist Steve Ciolek presents his thoughts on everyday subjects in a refreshingly whimsical and descriptive way.
“Win Affection” beautifully dissects the pitiful behaviors of someone facing unrequited love: “I started parting my hair like his, that’s what I did To subconsciously draw your attention To the arbitrary aspect of attraction”.
One of the fan favorites “Weed Tent” poses the interesting question (possibly while stoned) of “How could I be like a martyr, When I don’t really wanna die?”
There are several gratifying stream of conscious lyrics on the record.
The final song to mention in this Happiness Hours review is the title and closing track which wonders aloud: “Maybe someday you’ll have a baby’ The same way we were babies, Well isn’t that shit crazy How I think in these terms lately?”.
The title track does a nice job tying up the record and defining the concept of “happiness comes in hours”.
It’s not strictly those satisfying red letter days which maybe we’ve been long anticipating which matter most, it’s the seemingly inconsequential chance and overlooked moments which make us smile before we quickly move on.
The final few lines put you in one of those moments:
“It’s the car before it quits on the way to your first day of work, Or the last day of school, Still feeling the cool of the air, Through your patented moon-roof, Hearing the blown subwoofer mumbling some sung truth, It was your daily rock-block of Jimmy Eat, Joni, and The Jam, It’s the calming ‘California’ chorus, Just before the engine slam, …’California, I’m coming home’“
I know it’s a Joni Mitchell nod there at the end, but I still much prefer to think of this as rearranging Phantom Planet’s signature song’s howling chorus as the outro for the record, perfectly summing up the concept of Happiness Hours for me.
Happiness Hours is a record which impresses me with the things that can still be done in a genre I’ve heard thousands of times before. It’s a rare record which never gets old no matter how many times I play it, and one which can be played on repeat from the beginning without intervention with the absence of any filler.
With this record in mind, The Sidekicks are certainly a worthy subject of my Underrated Artists feature; I really can’t say enough good things about it and hopefully a few more people hear about it through this review.
The Sidekicks – Happiness Hours Review Score: 5/5
You can listen to Happiness Hours or purchase it at https://sidekicksohio.bandcamp.com/album/happiness-hours