The Health and Happiness Show
'90's Indie Alt-Country Power Pop
By Kurt Wildermuth
Middle-aged New Yorkers of a certain sensibility may remember the Bongos. That band was part of a pop-rock scene in the early to mid-1980's, when Hoboken, New Jersey, was affordable enough to constitute an offshoot of costly but cool downtown Manhattan and thus spawned a number of promising bands. The most prominent and long-lasting outfits out of that scene were Yo La Tengo and the Feelies (via Haledon, NJ). However, the Bongos' debut album, Drums along the Hudson (1982), remains a classic of jittery guitar-based fun; their Numbers with Wings EP (1983) boasted fuller sound and gained some media attention, including MTV airplay; and their final full-length, Beat Hotel (1985), and its posthumous follow-up, Phantom Train (2013), hold their heads up amid the drawbacks of 1980's production styles. The salient point about the Bongos is that, like their compatriots the dB's, they were "alternative" before that term had been applied to nonmainstream music. If in those days you wanted to hear rock that wasn't classic or punk or garage but drew freely and knowledgeably from those variations and other genres of music, you turned to these pioneers.
Since the mid-'80s, the Bongos' primary singer-songwriter, Richard Barone, has led a productive solo career. The other tributary from river Bongos was the Health and Happiness Show, fronted by the singer-songwriter James Mastro.
On Tonic (1993), the Health and Happiness Show's debut, Mastro is joined by Kerryn Tohurst on assorted stringed instruments, Todd Reynolds on fiddle, Vincent DeNunzio on drums, and Tony Shanahan on bass and keyboards. Basically, indie rockers play folk-country-rock, taking their name from Hank Williams's syndicated radio series. To an extent, it's as though these New Jersey boys are wearing costumes. But that's what alt-country, which I guess has morphed or broadened into Americana, has always been about. If the people playing music of this kind, or these kinds, were all from the rural U.S., it wouldn't be "alt."
In a sense, the folk-country part of the Health and Happiness Show is mainly a matter of presentation. The opener, "We Are Here," would be a straightforward pop song that you could imagine Fleetwood Mac covering, if it weren't for the pedal steel. A tipoff is the lyric "laying in a big brass bed," a reference to Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay." That hit appeared on Dylan's album Nashville Skyline (1969), where this Jewish guy from Minnesota who'd switched from folk to rock and helped invent folk-rock turned his attention to flat-out country. In donning a collective stage persona, the Health and Happiness Show interprets "roots" music to include the Irish-style waltz of "I Do," the overdriven folk blues of "Engine Engine," the jig of "River of Stars," and so on. "Sinner's Lullaby" would be a heartbreakingly beautiful look at unfaithfulness, whatever decade or style it was recorded in. Here, it's basically soft rock with violin. "Drunk-Eyed Waltz," by contrast, employs its violin in an electric rave-up reminiscent of Dylan's sonic attack on the Rolling Thunder tour (1975-76). "The Ghost of Love" keeps the proceedings in the modern rock camp, bearing a resemblance to New Jersey native Patti Smith's "Dancing Barefoot."
By Instant Living (1995), Tolhurst had been replaced by Erik Della Penna, and Todd Reynolds was no longer a member. The CD's opening track, "To Be Free," signals the band's different focus. The overall sound resembles the power pop of Matthew Sweet's classic Girlfriend (1991), which sometimes veers into folk or country via California; so if that's your thing, pounce. Indeed, if you appreciate that recording's lead guitar playing by Richard Lloyd, originally of Television, you'll be delighted that he guests on two tracks here.
Still, when Todd Reynolds's violin introduces one of those tracks, "Tossed Like a Stone," it's clear that the folk-country touches of Tonic haven't been jettisoned. Instead, the music often splits the difference between them, creating a hybrid. "You Is Fine," for example, has the crunch of '90's power pop, a riff and bounce worthy of the Beatles, a slight twang to the vocal, and a searing guitar solo from Lloyd. With less guitar noise and some pedal steel, "Many Kindnesses" could be a country classic. For example, Marty Stuart and his mandolin could take this one into a downhome setting, which is pretty much where "Anytime," with a slower tempo and ringing guitar, aims to land. "On Your Way" takes the atmospherics established there and makes them downright eerie, with echoes and reverb creating the kind of canyon that generally gloomy Gusses such as Nick Cave and the late Nikki Sudden like to inhabit. "Portrait of Disaster" shakes things up with a Bo Diddley beat and heavy guitar, like a postpunk Creedence Clearwater Revival. What saves some of these songs from sounding generic is the obvious commitment in Mastro's voice, which has the winning whine of '60's pop-rock star Gene Pitney, and the peerless musicianship, as when "Don't Have Far to Fall" rolls along amiably until picking up into a spiraling guitar solo that ends it and the recording. The recording ends, that is, apart from a brief, untitled bonus track that's weird and fun--weirder and funner than most of these songs, by the way, which are played much straighter than the romps on Tonic.
Sad and Sexy (1999), the band's swan song, sees the lineup reduced to Mastro and DeNunzio, with Dave DeCastro on bass and accordion and Erik Della Penna guesting on guitar. Ivan Julian, once of Richard Hell's Voidoids, plays keyboards and, on one track, guitar. Fans of New York and New Jersey indie music who read recording credits will recognize the name of cellist Jane Scarpantoni. Her touch and Syd Straw's backup vocals propel "Love Sounds Like Rain" into a pure pop stratosphere. In fact, if there's one Health and Happiness gem I hope you'll hear, it's this end-of-career peak, with its "do-do-do-do / sounds the rain" refrain and band coiled like a snake ready to whip.
In fact, Sad and Sexy completes the transformation of the Health and Happiness Show from faux cowpokes to power popsters to organic country-inflected rockers in the mold of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. But in bringing all the approaches together, Mastro crafts a set of songs that define "growers," their articulateness not announcing itself through polysyllables but revealing itself between spare lines:
Wake from darkness to a world of strangers
Wake from darkness without you
Now I'm just one more hole for the wind to blow through
("What's a Road For?")
Dead leaves catching at our sweaters
Holding hands at Willie Dixon's grave
Now when I hear his bass it's mixed with a trace
Of the noise of her name
("The Noise of Her Name")
Every day John comes home from school, locks himself in his room
And dresses up like it's Halloween
One day he'll leave that door open, come out
And tell his parents everything
("Six Ft. Overground")
Consider the one-two punch of "Some Stay Broke" and "We Don't Know." The first is a percussion-less meditation, all strummed acoustic, contemplate electric, and heartfelt vocal. The second is a thunderous rocker, the closest the Health and Happiness Show comes to metal and to glam. And it's funny that with Tony Shanahan having vamoosed to join Patti Smith's band, where he remains to this day, the Health and Happiness Show, on "Continents," deliver their most Smith-like song since "The Ghost of Love." Throughout, Mastro's production ensures that each track includes textures to savor, particularly the real-sounding drums and the guitars that buzz and screech.
Sometime in the late '90's, I saw the Health and Happiness Show perform two sets at Manhattan's now-defunct Rodeo Bar. During the first set, the band was tight. During intermission, the members perhaps indulged in some intoxicants. Meanwhile, I conversed with a woman who'd turned up out of curiosity, looking for entertainment, or something. I explained to the woman that I was a fan and was looking forward to the second set. When the band returned, they seemed tighter in a different way, starting out sloppy and never finding their feet. You could not have imagined a stronger contrast between the band's two sets, the one professional and the other a shambles. After a few songs, the woman looked at me with horrified amusement, said "Enjoy!" and fled. Ah well, that's life in the big city, and that's how music gets made in the real world of people who make it up as they go along.
Guitar-based bands are out of fashion at the moment, and the rock era might be over. If you want to revisit guitar-based rock records as they were made in the late twentieth century, warts and all, tune in to the Health and Happiness Show. You may find that these sounds haven't aged a day.
Also see writer Kurt Wildermuth's website
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