What’s that? You’ve never heard of Grouplove? But they came 10th — TENTH! — in NME’s list of the hottest new bands of 2010. Yes, that NME. The not-all-past-its-prime, totally hip and zeitgeist savvy, trendsetting little zine out of the UK. You know… the one with Oasis on the cover.
Never Trust a Happy Song is the debut full-length from L.A. indie-poppers Grouplove, and I’m afraid to say it makes for a pretty dreadful listen. It starts well enough. Although lyrically totally nonsensical, Itching On a Photograph is a vaguely infectious sing-clap-and-whoop-along in the style of The Killers, The Thrills, and Modest Mouse. Okay, so it sounds dated. Seth Cohen was listening to this sort of thing back in 2003. But it’s tuneful enough. Definitely proficient. From there on in, however, it’s pretty much downhill all the way. The more you listen, the worse it gets. And not just in terms of the songwriting either. Never Trust a Happy Song is unremittingly hyperactive. And there’s only so much of this relentlessly bland, super-duper sincere, happy-clappy drivel I can take. It’s like being bludgeoned over the head with a massive piece of indie-pop candy cane. And it makes you wonder: who or what is this music actually for?
Here’s my theory. Best not to think of this as an ‘album’ in the traditional sense at all. It’s not actually meant to be listened to carefully all the way through. The songs on Never Trust a Happy Song — virtually every last one of them — are the indie equivalent of Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” The Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling,” or LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem.” Of course, they’re completely different in acoustic terms (though the lyrics on Grouplove’s “Naked Kids” — “Cruising down the highway with my friends, top down, and we’re all on the way to the beach” — do bear a striking resemblance to those of a certain little miss Black), but the point of similarity is this: they’re all designed to enable as efficiently as possible the mutual performance of ‘having a good time.’ With Grouplove, that good time’s probably to be had at the beach or an outdoor summer musical festival rather than some teeny-bopper houseparty or a nightclub, but in each case, it’s precisely the cliché, the very recognizability of the sonic and structural cues that makes the songs work in context.
In other words, this is music for people who don’t like music. No, that’s not quite fair. It’s for people who aren’t prepared to invest very much of their time or energy in thinking about or listening to music, but who occasionally want to kick back and have a dance anyway. This is music as a kind of functional wallpaper, designed to both produce and valorize a certain kind of atmosphere: in the case of Grouplove, of a lighthearted, carefree hipsterdom. Ideally, it’s to be listened to (a) either distractedly, very drunk, or both; (b) irregularly; and (c) as singles, despite the album format (which is really just a vestige of tradition in this case, an old rockist hangup).
Considering what this record’s meant to be doing, then, you could reasonably argue that it does it pretty well. Except I won’t. Because this is neither a vision of musical performance nor a kind of listening practice that I for one particularly want to defend.