Not So Happy
Bush Tetras, an on-again off-again band active since 1979, seem to have crafted their career in spurts, working when it suits them, absorbing contemporary style while remaining true to their core sound. Never quite achieving mainstream success, they grew or or were stunted by their own whims. Their latest release, Happy, is not their most current, having been recorded in 1997. Because of this, Happy acts as something of a time capsule, and given the fifteen-year gap between recording and release, it shines best when considered in its original time and context.
There’s not much happy about Happy. Most songs seem trapped in a mid-tempo trudge through their own melancholy. The lyrics focus on martyrdom, or lack thereof, failed rescue, and melodrama. The first half of the album passes unremarkably, with a two-minute instrumental of persistent drums and squealing guitars, inexplicably titled “Chinese Afro,” to wrest attention.
Following are the two best tracks, which stand out simply by defying the sameness of all the others. “Pretty Thing” is a ballad featuring vocalist Cynthia Sley’s most natural, unaffected delivery. At the other extreme is “You Don’t Know Me,” alive with aggro spirit and noise-guitar, it shows Bush Tetras at their post-punk best. The remainder of the album falls back into the pitfalls of the first half. Sley vacillates between reciting lyrics (remember when Debbie Harry “rapped” on “Rapture?” It’s like that, but sans effort), or trying to sing-scream with gusto and coming up short. Towards the end, a sparse, spacey track “Oceans” brings to mind the Doors’ “The End,” with limited results.
Generally speaking, ’90s music reflected an emotional outpouring of American youth. A good deal of the music produced then still holds up for the art it is despite the vastly changed popular music scene. By 1997, however, the best of the ’90s were already through. Hanson and the Spice Girls were taking over, and Happy may have seemed just as much an out-of-place relic had it been released then as it does now.