Sneaks – ‘Happy Birthday’ review: an experiment in sound that fits and starts (but never gets boring)

Eva Moolchan's dazzling fourth album sees her continue the journey into avant-garde pop she began with 2019's brilliant 'Highway Hypnosis'

“I’m not underrated / I’m not overrated / I’m just slightly sophisticated,” Eva Moolchan deadpans amid experimental synth whirrs and scything beats on ‘Slightly Sophisticated’, the sixth track on her uncompromising fourth album, which continues the odyssey into oddball dance-pop that began with last year’s ‘Highway Hypnosis’. The message: she’s a best-kept secret musical outlier not waiting to be ‘discovered’, but content doing her own weird thing.

Moolchan emerged from the Washington DC alternative scene under her Sneaks moniker with 2016 debut album ‘Gymnastics’, comprised of spit-and-sawdust bass and drums and her distinctive, sardonic sing-song delivery. While she took a slightly more electronic approach with 2017’s ‘It’s A Myth’, it was with ‘Highway Hypnosis’ that she truly broke free of those post-punk constraints. An understated and truncated collection (it’s rare to find a Sneaks track that breaks the three-minute mark) that blended punk, alt-pop and even elements of rave, this was a record that left the listener wanting more.

The less restrained ‘Happy Birthday’ takes ‘Highway Hypnosis’’ basic elements and sends them up into the air like a firecracker; it’s an often dazzling display that sparkles and crackles with outlandish ideas. True, it fits and starts here and there, and sometimes goes with a whimper instead of a bang, but it’s certainly never boring.

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‘Faith’ is the most Sneaks song Sneaks has every recorded, opening with one of the louche, creeping basslines she’s been knocking out for half a decade, before she throws in the ludicrously fun combination of cowbell, snapping snares, a pop-tastic synth line and the finger-wagging lyrics “Never under your possession / Never under your judgement / I will never go for it – and that’s it.” In another, better world, the track would be an underground anthem in the kinds of basement clubs that unwittingly spent the start of 2020 serving as Covid incubators.

‘Scorpio’ sees her return to a more minimalist approach, stuttering beats and a spooky, spindly keyboard arrangement punctuated by stabs of synth. “Let’s rewind to the good old days / When I didn’t have a Scorpio by my side,” she teases, sounding punch-drunk on a love that, you can’t help but suspect, is not headed somewhere good.

The ideas here don’t hold together quite as well as they did on ‘Highway Hypnosis’. The track list lurches, rather than blends seamlessly, and on the spacey ‘This World’ she plays with an atonal vocal line (and the admittedly great lyric “you little prick – what do you know?”) that typifies her preference for experimentalism over accessibility. Even so, Moolchan remains as singular – and sophisticated – as ever.

Details:

Release date: August 21

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Record label: Merge

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