Sometimes titles can be misleading, or even a misnomer. That’s clearly the case with Bill & The Belles’ deceptively titled sophomore set, Happy Again. At first, the discrepancy isn’t very obvious other than the fact that it’s in parenthesis; the group’s giddy saunter and retro ragtime — similar in style to an old-time string band with banjo, fiddle, and some perky piano playing — is generally conveyed with what appears to be an irreverent attitude.
The sway and swoon of the campy and contrived Make It Look Easy, the nonsensical nursery rhyme imbued in The Corn Shuckin’ Song, and the fiddling finesse of Taking Back My Yesterday add to the impression that this quintet is an upbeat bunch. So too, the folksy faux weeping on Sobbin’ the Blues (think Alice Guthrie reciting Alice’s Restaurant), and faux yodeling heard on Blue So Blues, also add a mix of kitsch and catchiness.
Still, there’s a dark demeanor present at the heart of these songs which seem to suggest that the happiness they strive for is well beyond reach. Leader Kris Truelsen wrote these songs in the aftermath of his divorce, and for all the confidence and clarity that seems to shine on the surface, depression and disappointment are predominant themes.
“I need to be happy, I used to be gay, the sun used to shine down upon me each day,” Truelsen laments on the title track, before continuing, “…now I am lonesome, and lost in a daze, cuz she’s gone, she’s gone away.”
There’s no shortage of songs that echo those sentiments. “I’m indifferent, I don’t care,” he insists on the deceptively simple Make It Look Easy, while Sobbin’ the Blues, Blue So Blue, and People Gonna Talk add to a litany of sad circumstance. While a song such as Bye Bye Bill — a fanciful tale of a man’s drinking date with a whale (!?) — provides a rare carefree caress, but it’s an exception rather than a rule as far as the overall theme is concerned. Indeed, Happy Again revolves around contradiction. Delightfully giddy on the surface, it’s an album mired in sorrowful circumstance, and as a result, that despair can’t be dismissed.
Happily, there’s at least some mirth in the music that prevents Happy Again from belying its title entirely, and producer Teddy Thompson is careful to ensure that’s evident. “Get up and give it one more try,” the group urges on the song of the same name. They then end the set with the otherwise optimistic Good Friends Are Hard To Find, a genuine ode to friendship and fidelity. The lesson offered is this — life may not be easy, but it’s worth any price in perseverance.