To put it simply, Holy Youth are the reason I write about local music. Coming out of college, I had great expectations that I’d be able to cover Birmingham’s music scene — something I had almost no familiarity with, for the record — for Weld, but it wasn’t until I saw the poppy Montevallo four-piece open for the Babies at Bottletree in December of 2012 that this particular project seemed even remotely feasible.
What struck me most that night was the atmosphere the band was able to create, condensing staccato guitar riffs, catchy melodies and driving rhythms into undulating waves of sound that the listener would only be too happy to get lost in. Until then, I had no idea that an Alabama band could sound that good. Whatever misplaced notions I had of scene kids exchanging poorly labeled mixtapes in hushed reverence evaporated in the power pop magic of that show.
Accessibility is the name of the game on Holy Youth’s upcoming self-titled LP, which collects the band’s best songs from prior EPs and assembles them, along with some new material, into just under a half-hour of bliss. Every bit of the giddy energy from Holy Youth’s live show is intact on the LP, which still finds the time to work in sober self-reflection and thoughts on relationships into its thematic framework.
Holy Youth are the flagship band of Happenin Records, an indie micro-label based out of Montevallo. Holy Youth frontman Chris McCauley is the cofounder of Happenin, which boasts some of the best acts currently playing in Alabama, including scene regulars Plains and Drew Price’s Bermuda Triangle. Whatever the style each band plays in — ‘70s-style glam rock, psychedelic experimentation and melancholy dream-pop are all well-represented — nearly all of them are united by a terrific ear for what makes pop music work.
Looking at it that way, Holy Youth may not be the label’s most prolific act, but they’re probably the most definitive one. Every song is upbeat, immediate and radio-friendly, with warm guitar tones that are always assertive, rather than aggressive; welcoming, rather than intimidating. The record’s more jagged edges (“Black Holes”, “Structured Violence”) always feel like they’re moments away from beautiful resolutions. If you’ve been waiting for a band that finds a happy medium between the Ramones, the dBs and the Archies, you’re in luck.
The record’s sound is aided immensely by high-quality production, which has been as much a staple of Happenin Records’ catalog as it has been for Woodlawn label Communicating Vessels. Songs that didn’t really need the homemade quality of earlier EPs have been remastered — and remixed, in some cases — and generally expanded massively on the LP. Each enormous element, from the sunny guitars to the high-pitched vocals, becomes another texture to assemble into a poppy, maximalist mosaic.
Critically, though, while the band’s style may come off as sugary, its substance is never saccharine — or worse, just plain dumb. As much as the record focuses on immediate engagement for the listener, it rewards subsequent listens with subtle production touches — mainly beautiful snippets of backing vocals deep in the mix — as well as moments of earnestness smuggled into the runaway momentum of each song.
The record begins with “Radio Fuzz,” a staple of the band’s live show that laments the unimaginative quality of both pop love songs and the narrator’s own romantic ideals. Holy Youth’s willingness to complicate those adolescent ideals of love means delving into the frailties of relationships in the real world, which all too often don’t play out the way they do in love songs. In lieu of outright fights, there are unspoken tensions that are just as toxic, poisoning the relationship at the root (“I’m a Liar”).
Unlike some other upbeat records about difficult or moldering relationships — here’s looking at you, Elvis Costello — Holy Youth doesn’t lay the blame at someone else’s doorstep. Take the album’s most vulnerable (and best) track, “Empty Mind”, a brutal dissection of a relationship in its final days that just happens to be surrounded by the album’s most unstoppable songwriting. “My faults are real, and I can’t change,” McCauley sings. “Now I’m beginning to see that I was wrong, and you were right, but now you’re gone.” Without the emotional layers, “Empty Mind” would be a perfect summer song; in context, though, it’s a cathartic pop masterpiece.
In the wake of song after song of difficult soul-searching, though, the album resolves joyously with another Holy Youth standby, the paean to pacifism “Don’t Fight Back”. An ode to the virtues of grinning and bearing it, “Don’t Fight Back” is as catchy as a song about serenely accepting a whooping needs to be. In context, though, it’s also a perfect bookend to “Radio Fuzz”; after finding out that pop songs about love are happy and uncomplicated for a reason, the album decides to roll with the punches of real-life relationships with a smile. Summer will be in the rear-view mirror by the time Holy Youth is released on Oct. 14, but the optimism’s not going anywhere.
Holy Youth will have a release show for their self-titled LP on Saturday, Oct. 25 at the Spring Street Firehouse. Drew Price and Nashville’s Music Band will also perform. For more information, visit happeninrecords.com.