Happy New Year
hat, exactly, does Oneida have to do? They’ve been on the verge of indie stardom for several years now, surviving both the loss of a true eccentric talent—Papa Crazee, who went on to form the relatively slept-on Oakley Hall—and a subsequent move from gooey guitar jams to Ziploc-tight psychedelia, a transformation that took place on last year’s underheard The Wedding and is christened on the deft, spindly Happy New Year.
But if Oneida’s lack of one truly outstanding song—or one unanimously praised album—has kept them from reaching the level of popularity their songwriting and instrumental talents would predict, Happy New Year is similarly unlikely to vault them to the top of year-end lists or prominent spots on Barnes and Noble’s end-caps.
It’s not for lack of trying: Happy New Year shines obviously as Oneida’s most complete and daring album, a studied, unhinged plunge into 60s psych-rock, racing through the same serpentine melodies and sunny paranoia that dates the sound of many psych pioneers: Love, Jefferson Airplane, Syd Barrett, etc. While Oneida’s moved away from scraping guitar symphonies, they’ve learned to shave even more motion and power out of their keyboard sound. Combined with a newly discovered rhythmic prowess, Happy New Year arrives angry and virile. “The Adversary” barrels recklessly, interrupted occasionally by full-bodied guitar chords, while the irritant title track churns and buzzes.
When the band does return to their guitars, they make off in the form of pleasant acoustic constructions: “Busy Little Bee” and “Reckoning” are the album’s sugared, cream cheese center. There’s the catch, though. Whereas “Busy Little Bee” is a skilled, believable reproduction of forward-thinking 60’s pop, it is just that: adventurous 60s popular music. All of the progress Oneida makes with their analog fetish often takes a backseat to their retro-fitting vocal melodies. This isn’t an “unoriginal” condemnation, so much as a warning that Oneida have a tendency to come off as a wee bit academic, as if the moods and whimsies they create are the product of studied music nerd-dom and not artistic vision. Complicating the matter is that Oneida never establishes a truly enthralling lyrical or vocal presence, instead relying on the trio’s vocal harmonies and passable, though mostly unnoticeable lyrics.
Oneida overcomes these obstacles brilliantly in their best moments, which unfailingly occur when the band is pushing forward: the breezy palpitations of “The Misfit,” the dark vocal aerobics of “Pointing Fingers,” or the propulsive “Up with People” all establish the band as a unique entity, one capable of creating singular, inspired works. There’s truly no fucking with the type of art these guys are pouring out throughout much of Happy New Year, even if their less-inspired moments betray them as skillful fans instead of inspired visionaries. Fans of “classic” psychedelic music will find few greater pleasures this year than Happy New Year. Just don’t expect the wayward underground rock masses to follow.