Middle States | Happy Fun Party (Effen)

cd_middle-states.jpgHappy Fun Party possesses the schizophrenic arc of the inevitable, slightly weird party crasher, the one who nobody seems to know.




There’s nothing inherently wrong with a little hero worship. Middle States are certainly no worse off for attending regular services at the temple of ramshackle power pop. They dish out offertory hymns replete with chunky, fuzzy guitar riffs, Cheap Trick harmonies, and "ba ba ba" chants in place of real choruses. It’s not a bad religion, but it does also lend a tough-to-shake, self-conscious affectation, as if it’s forcing the band to hold back other ideas so as to stay true to a sort of revered, two- to three-minute archetype.

The disc bursts forth with the energy of an overzealous sprinter; "In Charge" and "Straight to the All or None" are chiming, charming, attention span-less tunes straight out of the Guided by Voices handbook. "No Curse No Drunk No Fight" and "Winds of Eiderdown" tread similar territory, but also manage to channel the spirit of Keith Moon, injecting a welcome wrinkle into the mix. It’s not the crashing, close-miked percussive attack of Who’s Next, mind you, but the tight rolls of "Happy Jack" and "I Can See for Miles." These are all heady thrills, but their infectious lightheartedness has a tendency to become tiring and annoying; the album begins to sag in the middle. One person can only take so many hyperactive, cryptically bashed out nuggets before needing something to cleanse the palate.

Mercifully, the final three songs dare to break the mold. "Friday Night" is an irresistible testament to the simple, liberating joys of kicking off the weekend and blowing off a week’s worth of steam, whereas "Tumbleweeds" and "Bring Down the Day" find Middle States exploring introspective, country-rock territory; non sequitur gives way to actual human emotions and finely wrought roots rock. The shift in tone as the album winds down is both slightly jarring and illuminating, as if a universal translator has unexpectedly been switched on, suddenly allowing you to understand Swahili.

Oddly, despite rarely straying from formula, Happy Fun Party is also lacking in coherent tone; it possesses the schizophrenic arc of the inevitable, slightly weird party crasher, the one who nobody seems to know. He arrives, shouts "who’s ready to party!," proceeds to drink about eight of everyone else’s beers from the fridge, frantically pounds his fist to whatever’s on the stereo as long as it "rocks," and eventually, finally slumps over in the corner, telling anyone who’ll listen about how he’s been "done wrong."

The most enjoyable moments of Happy Fun Party find a way to fuse the devil-may-care breeziness of Paul Westerberg at his most focused with the bite-sized, melodic, word-hunt translation fun of GBV. At worst, Middle States trawl the depths of the worst of both: sloppy, toss-off Westerberg or maddeningly inscrutable Bob Pollard. You might need to be in the right mood to appreciate or even listen to this, yet it’s difficult not to salute its often single-minded devotion to the Midwestern indie pop ideal. C+ | Mike Rengel

RIYL: Googling Robert Pollard lyrics; the loose effervescence of Cheap Trick at Budokan; the results when someone makes Paul Westerberg sit down and write a proper song; to party

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