The Horns of Happiness aren’t really a band. They’re not even really horns. What they are is one dude, Aaron Deer, previously known for his work with The Impossible Shapes and John Wilkes Booze. And if the’90s taught us anything, it’s that that one dude can do the work of ten. Many of the greatest albums of the era — Mellow Gold, The Downward Spiral, either/or — were all basically the work of just that one dude. Given the complexity of such a task, it can be a daunting, but Deer proves his mettle on The Horns of Happiness’ debut, A Sea as a Shore.
A Sea as a Shore is a fuzzy, psychedelic pop journey through the mind of an eccentric songwriter and his trusty multitrack recorder. Though Deer is assisted by some other Impossible Shapes members on Sea, the work is mostly his own. He takes a kitchen sink approach to instrumentation, leaving no song without its share of unusual augmentation. Though every song features guitar, bass, piano and percussion in some way or another, Deer also throws in tape loops, banjo, melodica, countless effects pedals, organs, horns and basically anything else he can get his hands on.
Opener “Joyous Laughing Wake” is one of the most instantly accessible songs on the album, though just about every track is fun and catchy in its own way. The song begins the album with some Pavement-style fuzz, while “Asleep in the Already Known” takes on elements of On Avery Island era Neutral Milk Hotel, quickly transitioning into harmonized guitar heroics that prove, once and for all, you don’t have to write songs about Vikings to play a decent solo. “Autumn Breathes East” is a shimmering bit of chamber pop that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Matt Pond PA record, and next track “Under a Dim Light” is fuzzy head-fuckery in the vein of former Elephant Sixers Olivia Tremor Control.
Many songs here bear a strong resemblance to the E6 collective, whether it be Neutral Milk Hotel’s overly-distorted strumming, Olivia Tremor Control’s use of bizarre instruments and samples or The Apples in Stereo’s simple lo-fi pop. The Horns of Happiness could easily find a common thread with any of these groups, but while we’re at it, why don’t we throw in a little Pavement, Guided by Voices, The Microphones and anyone else who felt more comfortable recording straight to cassette rather than bothering with digital mastering. Which isn’t to say that The Horns of Happiness sound crappy, because their recording quality somehow surpasses many of their forebears. Yet they share a similar sense of spontaneity and unpredictability.
The Horns of Happiness are a great pop outfit that offers lots of interesting surprises and great songs. But with so much sound and creativity on one album, it’s easy to forget that, really, it’s just that one dude.
Microphones – Mt. Eerie
Olivia Tremor Control – Dusk at Cubist Castle
Neutral Milk Hotel – On Avery Island
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.