(excerpted from From Mega Therion to Eden: A Personal Music Guide)
I bought the first five Happy Rhodes albums all at once, having heard not a single moment of her music previously, on the strength of the notation "Loves: Kate Bush, Jane Siberry, Happy Rhodes, Sarah McLachlan" on an email I got on the Tori Amos Internet mailing list Really Deep Thoughts. It was pretty hard for me to imagine that anyone who a fan of Tori, Kate, Jane and Sarah would place in their company wouldn't be wonderful, and since, at the time, I had to mail-order the albums, and I knew that if I got one I'd have to get the others whether I liked the first one or not, the most efficient solution was simply to order them all (there were, at the time, only five). It didn't hurt that I consider Aural Gratification one of the greatest label names of all time (and Happy's publishing name, Hovering Slab Music, is pretty good, too).
Turns out I picked a good time to get into Happy Rhodes. The relative success of Warpaint, her fifth album, in 1991, marshaled enough support for reissuing her first four albums (available only on cassette at that point) on CD, allowing me to obtain the whole catalog that way. I then had a few months to absorb the backlog before Equipoise, Happy's sixth album, appeared. If I'd have waited a few more months I would have seen her albums show up in stores here in Boston, and her get enough airplay that when I started to explain to my mother about this marvelous unknown singer I'd discovered, she'd say "Oh, Happy Rhodes, I've heard of her." As it was, I had at least a short period of self-satisfied Internet-insider knowledge. Also, an autographed HR5, but we'll get to that.
Rhodes I, 1992 CD
The first thing people will tell you about Happy Rhodes (and why should I be an exception?) is that she sounds like Kate Bush. There is both more and less to this than you might expect. First of all, there are moments in Happy's singing when she sounds so much like Kate that Kate fans will get alarming shivers running up their spine, spreading out across the base of their skull, and flickering threateningly around the tips of their teeth. Saying she sounds "like" Kate at these moments shows a glaring weakness in the English language. For a few seconds, here and there, Kate's voice comes out of Happy's mouth, there is no other way to describe it.
Once you get over those moments, though, you quickly realize that there are many more ways that Happy and Kate are different than there are ways that they are alike. Happy's voice covers a wide range of tones and timbres, and only one of them sounds anything like Kate. Kate's basic acoustic instrument was the piano; Happy's is the acoustic guitar. Happy has synthesizers to play with right from the beginning of her career, and performs everything on this album. Her music tends to be colder than Kate's, sparer, more introspective, ethereal, druidic (if that means anything to you), much more thoroughly disconnected from rock tradition than Kate's. Don't let either Happy's name or the howling monster on the cover fool you: this is music fueled neither by whimsy nor rage. It is somewhere in between: this is the music that a person who wishes to be happy, but isn't, finds inside themselves when they go looking for the monsters they know must be inside. "I have my pain, I have my love and my hate / And I'll not live without one of them", Happy sings on "Given In". These songs are compassionate, desperate, unbalanced, ambiguous, misguided, depressed and sometimes depressing, but never boring.
The defining moment on Rhodes I, and one of the best Happy has ever produced, in my opinion, is the last pre-bonus-track song, "The Wretches Gone Awry". A short, gentle song with only a single picked acoustic guitar for accompaniment, it weaves an intricate pattern of Happy's various voices around a theme that reminds me of Big Country's "Beautiful People", rejoicing in human frailty rather than despairing because of it. "I cannot change what is, and I cannot make it die, / But I can love with all my heart the wretches gone awry." The guitar part is simple, providing some useful musical structure, but doesn't distract you from the interplay of the voices, which is like the aerial mating rituals of angels (and sure, they mate). On a strict vocal ability level, I think Happy is largely peerless. That's not necessarily a musical compliment coming from me, but in Happy's case she has a remarkable instinct for what multi-tracking herself can accomplish, and produces some mesmerizing results.
There are basically two sorts of songs on Rhodes I. The bulk are acoustic near-lullabies like "The Wretches Gone Awry". Of these my favorites are "Rainkeeper", "Given In", "Number One", "Moonbeam Friends" and the two CD bonus tracks, "The Flaming Threshold" and "Suicide Song", all of which capture the essential charm of "The Wretches Gone Awry", folksongs drifting into our universe from the borders of some dimly, but fondly, remembered dream. The second sort, interwoven with the first, are dark, reverberating and synthesized, songs as the dream begins to turn frightening, but you are unable to change its course and not quite entirely able to understand where the good parts went wrong. "He's Alive" and "I'm Not Awake, I'm Not Asleep" are my favorites of this sort, songs that make it clear that the monsters from the cover aren't the mindlessly direct slashers of horror films, but sophisticated creatures as much imprisoned by their fearsome demeanors as empowered by it. In fact, if you look closely at the figure on the cover, you'll note that it seems to have no lower teeth, which turns its sharp, oversized upper fangs from predatory assets to painful liabilities rather quickly. As I listen to this album, the monster's cry turns from killing fury to gut-wrenching sorrow.
Rhodes II, 1992 CD
Rhodes II continues the saga begun on Rhodes I. On the whole, I think that Happy might have been better served by making a single album out of the best dozen songs from these two volumes, rather than publishing all thirty tracks, but the thing about releasing albums on your companion-in-life's own record label, and distributing them out of your kitchen, is that you can do whatever the hell you want. The downside is that the natural feedback mechanisms that the industry provides for major-label artists, like reviews and chart fate and meddling label executives and producers and the like, largely don't exist for independents like Happy, which makes it difficult to edit towards any particular end, even if Happy had wanted to, which it's quite possible she didn't.
At any rate, there is enough great material on both discs that either are enviable accomplishments as is. My favorite here is "Under and Over the Brink", which is included in two versions (the older, rougher one "barely salvaged from the vault" as a CD bonus). The vocal counterpoint between Happy's lyrical lead and the chirpy trans-vocal backing track on the rough version is intense, but the leads on the sparer new version are even more chilling, the octave jumps in the single part even more awesome as they accomplish in one pass what the older version needed two passes to achieve. Other first-rate primarily-acoustic numbers include "The Revelation", "No one Here", "To the Funnyfarm" and "The Chase".
The synthetic songs begin to predominate here, though. There are more of them, and they sound more accomplished. The stiff 12/8 "Many Nights" has only eighteen words, but cycles through them with a startling methodical grace. The bizarre "Not For Me" shows an new inventiveness at the keyboard that reminds me a bit of Kate's Never for Ever. The ominous, metallic "Beat It Out", which stretches the low end of both Happy's keyboard and her voice, uses vocal repetition like "Many Nights", but strips away essentially all rhythm for a disturbing funereal pace that either genuinely affects me emotionally, or is using subsonics to get straight to my reactions without going through my conscious mind.
For the most part, though, I have to admit that the synthesized songs here are less satisfying to me than the acoustic ones. Partly this is a technical artifact; Happy's keyboards have a dullish, old-analog sound to them that sounds like she couldn't afford better ones, not like they're supposed to sound this way. Partly, though, it's musical. "Take Me With You" sounds like a merry-go-round on valium to me, and I can't quite reconcile the slow, moody pace and feel of the song with the sort-of toy-train music. Happy also has a tendency, in these slower songs, of letting up on the delicate multi-voiced melodies that make songs like "Under and Over the Brink" so magical to me, and I miss them.
Rearmament, 1992 CD
For Rearmament, Happy expands her sonic palette considerably. She is still playing everything herself, but on the first track she immediately introduces programmed drums and percussion, and what sounds like electric guitar, for the first time, as well as some synthesizers that sound like a significantly more recent vintage. Other songs bring in thunder and a low whooping sound that might actually be a big piece of metal being flexed, not a synthesizer. "Perfect Irony", "I Am a Legend","'Til the Dawn Breaks", "The Issue Is", "Friend You'll Be" and "Baby Don't Go" all show a striking maturation compared with the restrained material on Rhodes II even at its most adventuresome. "Perfect Irony", the opener, is as good an example of these as any. The drum track consists of a deep, heavy bass drum, some precise high-hats, various stick hits and hand-claps, and a tom or two tossed in every once in a while. The rhythm gets passed around this kit gradually, unhurriedly, with each drum taking its own, clearly defined, turn in the cycle. The overall pattern, in addition, doesn't change much throughout the song. You're not going to dance to it, I don't think, but it seems to center the song very well, giving the other keyboard parts and Happy's vocals a foundation to weave around.
"Baby Don't Go" shows that maturation and drums aren't synonymous. Drumless, it plays two or three voices against a couple accompanying keyboard parts. The main keyboard is warm, fuzzy and somewhat indistinct, and its blurring effects underscore the choppy back-and-forth of the vocal parts nicely (like a nice cream sauce, perhaps). I think this song shows Happy for the first time being able to carry a song on keyboards the same way her earliest songs are carried on guitar, reaching parity on the two instruments.
My clear favorite, though, is the CD bonus track, "Be Careful What You Say", which comes as close as Happy has to this point to making a true pop song. The percussion actually breaks down and plays a few recognizable kick-snare combinations in the chorus, and a cool elastic-y bass-synth line duels with an honest-to-god hook hiding in the upper ranges. I suppose some fans who were particularly satisfied with the most austere instrumentation of Happy's earlier synthetic compositions may be distressed to find this capitulation to commercialization, but I think it is very nice indeed, a merging of styles that were dying to merge, giving Happy's songcraft a strong direction that much of the rest of this album hinted at but stopped short of. And besides, it's only the CD bonus-track.
This album's weaknesses, and it does have some, are a string of three out of four songs that seem to me to rely on a too-similar waltz cadence ("Crystal Orbs", "Because I Learn" and "Rhodes Waltz", with only "Baby Don't Go" to break them up), a squeaky keyboard part on "Box H.A.P." that goes through me like rubbing on balloons does to some people, and the meandering "Ally Ally Oxenfree", which crosses over the fine line between lullaby and nursery rhyme for me. As I said about Rhodes I and Rhodes II, though, there is a killer album on this disc, it just has some company. Cut the five songs I don't like out of this hour-plus album and you have a very impressive record at an eminently respectable length. Pity she didn't, but there's a button on your CD player clearly labeled "Skip".
Ecto, 1992 CD
The Happy Rhodes Internet mailing list is called Ecto, and there are people on it who claim this is their favorite Happy album. Sadly, I don't get it. Ecto is clearly the low point in Happy's career to me. The burgeoning potential on Rearmament is almost entirely squandered here. Instead of picking up where "Be Careful What You Say" left off, and launching into an inspired melding of pop invitingness with Happy's own unique style and gifts, this album slouches into a dispirited, energyless stasis that I find mostly devoid of any of the appealing characteristics of the previous three albums. The songs vary basically from dull-but-agreeable to just dull. The accompaniments seem uninspired, the vocals undersung, the melodies simply missing. The addition of bass on "Ecto" and "Poetic Justice" has potential, but the actual bass parts on both songs seem painfully stiff to me, their repetitiveness not welcome.
On the other hand, the two songs I do like in the body of the album both rely on heavy repetition, the synth-bell arpeggio in "Off From Out From Under Me", and the oscillating synth-marimba (or -kalimba, or one of those woody, mallety -things) on "Don't Want to Hear It", which has some of the really mind-blowing Kate-like moments (check out "You know I'm no doctor"). The two songs I really like here are the two CD bonuses "Look for the Child" and "When the Rain Came Down", which appear to have dropped in from another record entirely (Rearmament, would be my guess, judging from the drums). I think I must just be missing some crucial aesthetic circuit in my Happy cortex that would enable me to enjoy this record. Pay me no heed.
Warpaint, 1991 CD
Happy's breakthrough album (a major one, artistically, I think, and a minor one commercially) is this one, her fifth. Three notable factors distinguish it from its predecessors immediately. First, the picture on the cover is Happy herself, not a monster. Second, it has only twelve songs (the first four have fifteen each). Editing, do you think? Third, for the first time Happy did not produce and play this album entirely herself. Aural Gratification magistrate Kevin Bartlett co-produces it, and plays several instruments. Other players contribute bass, additional vocals, keyboards and violin to individual songs.
Now, none of these changes are inherently advances. I like the monsters on the early covers, and at least half of one returns for Equipoise, later. The missing three songs could easily be attributed to time pressure, not editing. And I don't mean that there was anything wrong with Happy's production or solo playing on the other albums. Put together, though, these things add up to change, and change can be dynamic, and in this case I think it's exactly what Happy needed. From Ecto, which I could almost discard, the jump to Warpaint is, at least personally, thrilling. If you like Ecto better than I did, the transition may not seem as sharp as it does to me, but you'll notice the stylistic advance whether you thought she needed one or not.
"Waking Up", the first track, still isn't dance-club fare, but it has several qualities in that direction that Happy's music previously lacked. Foremost among these, or among the ones I notice, at any rate, is soulfulness. The drum pattern on this song could almost be called a groove, though it's still pretty slow for dancing. Happy's deep voice here doesn't sound nearly as much like monks chanting as it usually does, and there's a bit of high singing, toward the ends of the choruses, which has an almost sensual sway to it. These are new aspects, and exciting ones.
"Feed the Fire" is a partial stylistic retreat, colder and stiffer than much of the rest of the album. The retreat is conscious, though ("I want to go back to the trees / Where my art was born"), which makes a big difference. "Murder" compensates with a huge jump in the other direction, slow and deliberate yet powerfully kinetic, not entirely unlike The Dreaming, but its less-obviously frantic moments. "To Live in Your World" backs off the drums again, but with "Murder" for contrast this quiet song seems haunting and beautiful, not lethargic and unfocused.
The album hits a short skid for me at that point, with "Phobos" and "Wrong Century", which strike me as kind of painful (though the latter has some nice moments when Happy and Mitch Elrod duet), and "Lay Me Down", which doesn't ever seem to get going. The rumbling bass and clattering drums of "Terra Incognita" get the album back on track, though, and the bounce back and forth between lead and backing vocals on the verses of this song is as captivating as anything since "Wretches". The bass nears funkiness, and the dialog fragments in the latter half are a nice (and, for Happy, new) touch.
"All Things (Mia ia io)" drifts in from the musical neighborhood of Ecto, but Happy's close, direct vocals rescue it for me, though it still isn't my favorite. The "Mia ia io" is just nonsense syllables, not Italian or anything. Things don't get any time to unravel, though, as close on "All Things"' heels comes "Words Weren't Made for Cowards". This is probably the most extended bit of Kate-likeness, as the whole verses of this song (and there are three long ones) are rife with vocal tricks borrowed from the Never for Ever era. The interjections of Happy's distinctive lower registers in the chorus makes this song an excellent one-song demonstration of her range.
Bob van Detta's fretless bass introduces the title track. The music on "Warpaint" doesn't impress me that much on its own, but the lyrics, and Happy's obvious commitment to them, especially the chorus' tagline "Those years are lines of color on my face, the past is warpaint", make this song transfixing. Combined with the cover photo, which has a none-too-happy looking Happy drawing the lines on her face with her fingers, lines that we can't see but that you can tell she feels, this song tells a powerful story that I'm assuming is autobiographical, not that it matters if it isn't.
The album eases out with the beautiful "In Hiding", a "Bridge Over Troubled Water"-like ballad with classic potential, moving piano by Martha Waterman and Happy finding a heretofore undiscovered soft spot in her range hiding just above her low voice. This is the first Happy Rhodes album that feels like an album, not just a song collection (probably it is the first album constructed as an album), and it feels like an impressive album.
Equipoise, 1993 CD
Happy's sixth album, and the first new one in my association with her music, continues the development shown on Warpaint. Kevin again co-produces and plays, and guests this time around contribute guitar, bagpipe, snare, bass, vocals, and piano. The most interesting new detail before you actually start listening to the album is that a liner photo (inside, mind you, not visible without purchasing the CD and opening it) actually has Happy smiling, and Kevin gets a thank you for "making me laugh". These are the first two pieces of evidence that Happy ever embodies her name, and I'm glad to see them.
The record opens with Happy's closest approach to date to a song with "hit single" drive. "Runners" actually has some kick-snare action (you know, kick on the downbeats, snare on the backbeats; the "rock" way) and a little casual vocal whimsy ("coming around 'e gonna take my heartbeat", and that's about the first time I can think of when Happy has done anything "casual"), and while it doesn't move fast enough to pogo to, you can easily imagine it playing over the credits of a poignant-but-uplifting movie that has the triumphant characters not, perhaps, riding into the sunset, but walking off in the rain, or sitting comfortably at home while the camera pulls slowly away. Of course, the lyrics are a bit on the apocalyptic side, but you have to pay pretty close attention to pick up on that, and people watching credits rarely do. Then again, people watching credits are usually actually exiting the theater as quickly as possible, and so they'll miss most of the song. Let that be a lesson to them.
On the one hand, "He Will Come" is something of a throwback to earlier Happy days. On the other, such is her maturation that everything is better, even the stiff sort of song that she used to make, and this one only aspires to that old awkwardness. Chuck D'Aloia's nylon-string guitar is a humanizing element, but Happy's voice really didn't need the help. "The Flight" has its slow, dark verses, too, but other than being the story of a world-weary vampire submitting himself to his killer, it's downright bouncy, Happy's keyboards jumping around Kevin's bass and percussion.
The sinister lyrics continue with "Out Like a Lamb", which I'm convinced is a love song from a devoted lunatic to a scarily methodical mass-murderer who she regards as an artist, killing as his art. "I can feel no shame in his discretion", she sings. "He'll call me when he's back in town", she repeats. Whether she thinks herself immune to him, or his certain next victim, is unclear to me. And admittedly, my interpretation hinges on the phrases "He quietly slipped out of town / When the doctor was turned around" and "For seventeen hours he moved Vern out / Piece by piece", the former for the deranged part, the latter for the killing. Otherwise he could just be a painter, though what would be interesting about a painter coming to see the narrator I don't immediately see.
"Save Our Souls" is even prettier sounding, and lyrically more alarming. The song sounds almost like Clannad, lilting and gentle, and the reassuring sway of the chorus' "Save our souls" seems religious in some unthreateningly vague way. The lyrics are actually a mocking imitation of the way humans hope for divine/alien intervention to beautify them when, patently, they don't deserve it. "We are the number one offender of specieism and yet / Here we are reaching out for aliens, / Looking for our salvation. / Pity our emptiness." Finding life elsewhere in the universe would profoundly change life here on Earth; simply considering the possibility should change our perspective on a host of existing ethical issues, but it doesn't seem to have. Yet.
"Closer" is, if I were making a single of "Runners", the b-side I'd use. It's a little slower, a little less immediate, so as not to detract from the a-side, but it's definitely in the same stylistic family. Kelly Bird's additional vocals are delicious, and the dynamics between the legato chorus and the clipped verses give the song a strong overall structure. "Temporary and Eternal" takes the soaring spirit from the way "Closer" sings "I'm closer" in the chorus, and recasts it as the verse motif, pairing it with a chorus more like "In Hiding", from Warpaint.
"Cohabitants", next, contains the most startling departure from her known stylistic ground, a distorted, processed-voice spoken part that alternates with elfin patter and both ethereal and smoky voices that drop in for couplets at a time. The music through much of the song is mostly percussion, though the sing-song pixie-rap runs over both the percussion clatter and the smoother keyboard fills that usually accompany the smoky voice. I'm not sure I really like this song, but it's intriguing, and I definitely don't resent its presence.
"Play the Game", on the other hand, is the one I'd do without. The music isn't terrible, but it isn't stunning, either, and the battle-of-the-sexes lyrics really bother me. "Boys, can I play your game by my rules? / Yours don't apply to me" is just too superficially PC for me to take, and tacking "and be who I want to be" on doesn't help at all. The sentiments are correct, undeniably, and sincere, but the way they are expressed here reminds me of all the awful sincere poetry I wrote in high school, much of which was just this bad.
All is forgiven for the last two songs, though, which are masterful. "Mother Sea" is another Martha Waterman piano appearance, like "In Hiding", and this one is even more beautiful than "In Hiding" was, which I consider to be a sizable compliment. Unwilling to end two albums in a row on such songs, though, Happy instead closes Equipoise with "I Say", a slow, pretty song of her own devising and style. An apparently effortless song that nonetheless moves through quite a number of discrete sections, "I Say" makes an excellent summary of the album, as well as a counterbalance for the faster, more-straightforward "Runners" at the other end. And balance, after all, is what "equipoise" is about.
Actually, there's an anecdote connected to the name. When I first heard the title, I thought "equipoise" was a word Happy had made up. I'd never heard it before, that I knew of, and it seemed like the kind of word she would invent because she needed it. Somebody on Ecto pointed out that it was a real word, and a dictionary check here confirmed that (and why would they lie about such a thing, anyway?). When my copy of Equipoise arrived in the mail, the book I had just started reading was Titus Groan, the first book in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy (actually, though there are three books, the third one is largely a separate thing, and the first two are the real story). A few hundred pages into the book, I encountered the word "equipoise" in the text, not once but several times! A truly remarkable coincidence, you might say. Or, you might point out all the other records I've acquired only to not have their titles appear in whatever book I was reading at the time, and say that I'm just making a disproportionately big deal out of the one coincidence I noticed. Figure out the odds somehow, and I'm sure it comes out that you'd expect this sort of thing to happen every 1000 records or so. Check back with me next edition and we'll see how that hypothesis is coming.
At any rate, Equipoise and Gormenghast make a fitting pair to me. The monsters in both are mostly just people, and Gormenghast has this ancient, ingrained sinister cast that Happy's dark, mystical music resonates with nicely. In many ways I like Warpaint better as an album, but Equipoise has richer associations.
HR5, 1993 CD5
Some time after Equipoise came out, Kevin and Happy got bored and decided to send out this promotional 5-song sampler in an attempt to drum up some radio airplay, reviews and the like. By special request of Ecto, they reserved a small pile for Ectophiles who wanted to buy a copy (signed!), a number among which I did not hesitate to count myself. Besides "Feed the Fire", from Warpaint, and "I Say", from Equipoise, this single includes an "acoustic tribute version" of "Feed the Fire", an acoustic cover of David Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes", and an acoustic version of Equipoise's "Save Our Souls".
All three acoustic tracks are wonderful. As much as I liked Warpaint and Equipoise, part of me also misses the pure acoustic beauty of "The Wretches Gone Awry" and "Over and Under the Brink". Hearing "Save Our Souls" and "Feed the Fire" done acoustically, new songs (with all the songwriting maturity that brought) in the old, charmingly simple, style, is an unexpected treat. The excerpts from Yes' "Long Distance Runaround", Kate's "Running Up That Hill" and Bowie's "Starman" are cool touches, Happy paying literal, unambiguous tribute to what she means when she sings "my ears are lucky to hear these glorious songs". Hearing her sing an actual Kate part turns out not to be nearly as affecting as hearing what sounds like Kate's voice singing songs you know aren't Kate's.
The "Ashes to Ashes" cover is decent, too, but not being a big Bowie fan, it doesn't seem like that big a deal to me.
RhodeSongs, 1993 CD
The good news is that the release, a few months later, of RhodeSongs, meant that you don't have to have been on Ecto to get the songs from HR5. The even better news is that this is a compilation, and a very thoughtfully constructed one, and provides an ideal place to begin your life with Happy. Rather than trying to make a plain "best-of", Happy and Kevin instead decided to pick a selection that made sense together, a set of songs that all showed the softer side of Happy's canon.
They did a great job. RhodeSongs coheres better than any of the studio albums. Even songs that I wasn't that crazy about the first time, like "Ode" and "If So" from Ecto, sound great in this context. Showing a little fan-consciousness, they also include a few more treats for the collector, acoustic versions of "Given In" (a 1991 recording for "The World Cafe") and "In Hiding" (with acoustic guitar and bass in place of piano; I actually prefer the original), and a previously unreleased song called "Summer" (a cappella, sort of like two or three "My Lagan Love"s at once).
Going through by album, then, RhodeSongs contains: "The Wretches Gone Awry" from Rhodes I (ignore the Rhodes II typo in the credits), and "Given In" originally from there; "The Revelation" and "Let Me Know, Love" from Rhodes II; "Because I Learn" and "I Have a Heart" from Rearmament; "If So" and "Ode" from Ecto; "Feed the Fire" (twice) from Warpaint, and "In Hiding" originally from there; "I Say" and "Temporary and Eternal" from Equipoise, and "Save Our Souls" originally from there; and "Ashes to Ashes" and "Summer" from no album. As a replacement for the individual albums, it's useless. Every album, even Ecto, has essential songs not covered here. As an introduction to Happy, though, it's perfect, and precisely because it can't replace any of the albums, you won't resent having it even after you've bought them all.