Happy Happy is a short, but surprisingly sure-footed, debut selection of pop songs that showcases several performance styles, all built upon the strong, sweet voice of singer-songwriter Rachel Schain.
“Rockstar, Bitch” starts the disc with a smart, tart declaration of purpose. A snarl of guitar provides the second clue — the first being the title — that this sprightly tune about the trials of being the hot girl’s friend isn’t just an exercise in catharsis or confidence-building. Schain’s conviction is clear as she belts out catchy choruses of “I am gonna be a rockstar, bitch / A rockstar, bitch / A rockstar, bitch / So you go on ahead and scratch that itch / ‘Cause I am gonna be a rockstar, bitch!” Note the comma in the song title, and note also that, although the lyrics are directed at a male musician, the empowering sentiment is meant for everyone.
“Bobbi Sue” switches styles in an ode to classic 1950s balladry, complete with gorgeous “shoo-wop shoo wah” backing vocals, brushes on the drums, and an upright bass sound. The arrangement and production not only evoke that early era where rock met pop, they pay direct musical homage to Santo and Johnny with its echoes of the “Sleepwalk” guitar solo. The combined effects of these elements is mesmerizing, but they’re only half the magic here. This is precisely the sort of thing for which voices like Schain’s were made. Not this type of stylized tribute specifically, but this kind of singing, where the words have weight and her voice carries, and conveys, every ounce of their emotional message.
Other tracks on Happy Happy aren’t as heavy as “Bobbi Sue”, at least in terms of concept or production. “The Way I Love You”, “By Your Side”, and “Mixed Signals”, for instance, while not entirely acoustic (Schain is backed by a band for the whole record), do share certain qualities with the girl-and-her-guitar genre prevalent in indie pop today. “The Way I Love You” is another perspective on the themes in “Rockstar, Bitch” — its precursor, perhaps — it is much more internal, and as such, not as powerful. It’s at this point that the album begins, briefly, to approximate various things we’ve heard several times before.
“By Your Side” particularly falls prey to its resemblance to any number of similarly folky laments by other performers. It’s something of a misstep amongst so many standout songs. Meanwhile, “Mixed Signals”, although vocally stunning, suffers from a sense of somber severity that threatens to topple it. It’s saved, of course, by Schain’s devastating soprano and remarkable phrasing, which, for this track, is eerily reminiscent of Natalie Merchant.
Happy Happy‘s closing track, “Not My Place” is another piece centered on an acoustic guitar, but it returns to a bit of the rock of the opener. It has more than a little of that lyrical bite, too, as Schain compares herself to a romantic replacement and finds the surrogate sorely lacking. It’s to her credit that this doesn’t seem spiteful in any sense. In fact, nothing on this album is mean-spirited in any way, but it is all incredibly, irresistibly sharp. That disarming alacrity, in addition to an ear for melodic pop and her distinctive, full and undeniably rocking soprano, is what elevates Rachel Schain’s simple compositions so far above the average coffeehouse acoustic singer-songwriter set.