Charles Spearin, founder of Canadian experimenters Do Make Say Think and sometime contributor to Broken Social Scene, has artistically one-upped himself with The Happiness Project. While it will probably never tug at the heartstrings of as many people as BSS, The Happiness Project is an accomplishment that other musicians will find themselves wishing they had created as the years go by.
Using recorded interviews with his neighbors and friends as a starting point, Spearin thrusts the melodic, songy qualities of the human voice into his musical spotlight. Trumpet, piano, harp, saxophone and other tones mimic the patterns of human speech, as on “Mrs. Morris,” or use the interviewee’s statements as a musical starting point, as evidenced in “Vittoria.” Both tactics are often combined, resulting in oddly endearing vignettes like “Vanessa.”
“Vanessa” blooms in slow motion as strings and rhythmic pulses are gradually added to a piano and voice counterpoint. The process brings to mind the telltale vocal hooks and short, demonstrative samples used by hip-hop artists. It’s art school meets the school of the turntable meets overly creative Canadians, and the result is a highly improvisational fusion of jazz, folk, and aural anthropology.
With help from Canadian music mafia members Kevin Drew (BSS), Justin Small (DMST), and Evan Cranley (Stars), Spearin finds unexpected, heartwarming melodies throughout the album. The aforementioned harp is the catalyst for conversation on “Marisa,” while a child’s petulant display is visualized in violin on “Ondine.”
The peaks and valleys of a person’s speaking voice, when unfettered by expectations or nervousness, provide excellent themes on which Spearin builds an exponential collage of sounds. In some cases, like “Mr. Gowrie” and “Mrs. Morris,” the instrumental sounds are so well placed that they elevate the simple speech to a higher level of consciousness. Each song has a moment where the speaker and the music coalesce into each other, taking on each others traits before morphing into something entirely new.
The Happiness Project isn’t for everyone. It will challenge fans of Spearin’s more rock-oriented projects, and is best taken in a small dose. Most will welcome the album’s brief running time, regardless of their feelings about the content. I think it is a fantastic idea and a revelation, but I don’t think I’d want more than the 40 minutes it offers, at least not in one sitting.
After experiencing this album, the listener is schooled in a particularly challenging style of experimental music and enlightened by the endless variety of human speech patterns. Spearin deserves all the credit in the world for this brilliantly conceived work. While he never envisioned this project making it beyond his living room, it belongs in a conspicuous spot among the best avant-garde releases of the year.
Rating: 8.3 out of 10