Meg & Dia – happysad: Don’t you ever try to calm down that flavor.

Artist: Meg & Dia
Album: happysad
Year: 2019
Grade: B+

In Brief: Think of this less as a reformation of Meg & Dia the band, and more as a rediscovery of Meg & Dia the sisters who loved making music together, and who now make sharp, witty pop songs with engaging riffs and rhythms. It’s sad that all the music industry B.S. ever split them up in the first place, but it feels so good to have these two back together again.


Sometimes the price an artist pays for a bit of mainstream exposure simply isn’t worth it in the long run. There are many cautionary tales to be told about young bands and singer/songwriters who have labored in relative obscurity, only to get caught up in the good timing of a trend in popular music turning a major label’s ears in their direction, leading to a record deal that seems lucrative but turns out to be short-lived, leaving their career at an utter standstill. But an especially cruel twist of fate was dealt to the band Meg & Dia almost a decade ago. An up-and-coming indie rock act fronted by two sisters, packed with energetic riffs and feisty lyrics, seemed like they were perfectly timed for a launch to stardom when Warner bros. Records signed the band based off the success of 2006’s Something Real. That partnership yielded 2009’s Here, Here, and Here, a devilishly catchy set of songs that was certainly more glossy and mainstream than their previous work, but that was also wordy and weird and that unfortunately never quite yielded the breakout singles that the label was apparently hoping for. The band went back to indie status soon after, very quietly releasing the more low-key album Cocoon, and it was around that time that lead singer Dia Frampton auditioned for the then-new reality singing competition The Voice. She placed second in the show’s inaugural season, resulting in a record deal and a largely enjoyable solo debut, Red, released in late 2011. But the thing is, she never really wanted to go solo. The type of narrative that The Voice likes to spin for its contestants, and the one that the label wanted to go with later, evidently didn’t leave room for one of its vocalists still being a member of a modestly successful rock band. Try as Dia might have to keep her sister and the rest of the band involved in her solo work, the spotlight being shone solely on her led to a frayed relationship between the two siblings. Meg Frampton quit the band in 2012, and the band ceased to exist not long after. Dia went on to record an EP as half of the duo Archis that turned out to be a nice little slice of baroque pop. That project fizzled out, leading her to go solo again for 2017’s Bruises. Honestly, as much as I wanted to root for her, none of the new music she was putting out was nearly as interesting to me as her work with a band that had now been destroyed by reality TV and its predatory practices.

Many years after all of the drama blew over, Meg & Dia mended fences. They were family, so they had to see each other at Christmas and stuff, but they hadn’t really talked in years, and while I don’t blame Dia for record label decisions she couldn’t control, she clearly felt some measure of regret over how things were handled. Once they realized it was all basically water under the bridge, they figured there was nothing to stop them from making music together once again. So they reunited for a Vans Warped Tour gig in the spring of 2019, and a few months later, with no preceding fanfare whatsoever, the band dropped a surprise new album called happysad. Meg & Dia had been off my radar for so long at this point that I wasn’t sure what to make of this announcement. I remembered rationalizing when I reviewed both Cocoon and Red that Dia’s solo efforts wouldn’t preclude the band from continuing to do their thing, and I turned out to be super wrong about that, so why get my hopes up for a new Meg & Dia album to be any good after all these years of the two being apart, and likely now on completely different wavelengths? An listen to the lead single “American Spirit” seemed to confirm my fears at first glance – this was downbeat, synthetic pop music – definitely good music, just not at all what I was expecting – that just so happened to have Meg & Dia’s name attached to it. The band, as we once knew them, has not reunited. But the sisters have. It took a few listens to the album for me to fully understand the distinction.

happysad is most definitely a pop album, not a rock album. Meg & Dia was once a five-piece band with loud guitars as their lead instrument and a solid rhythm section to make sure all of their classic singles packed a real wallop. The new Meg & Dia still features some pretty sweet guitar licks (courtesy of both Meg and Carlo Gimenez, who appears to be the only one of their old bandmates to find their way back to them on this record), but keyboards and programmed rhythms are much more prominent. This sounds more like Red than anything in Meg & Dia’s pre-breakup discography… but I mean that in a good way. I liked Red, but certain aspects of it were very design-by-committee, and here I feel like the band is fully able to express themselves to the tune of some solid indie pop hooks without having to dumb anything down. They’ve always been on the quirkier side, songwriting-wise, referencing literature and specific life events in ways that probably made labels a little nervous who were hoping for something a little more universal. That turns out to be a real strength on this record, even if it often means sabotaging a potential breakout hit with an oddly-placed curse word or a bit of social commentary that not everyone is going to easily follow. They put the songwriting first, but didn’t slouch at all in terms of making sure the slick pop grooves and sweet guitar licks were consistently engaging. Through and through, this feels like a record they wholeheartedly wanted to make, even though a side-by-side stylistic comparison of it to any of the band’s past work would be incredibly jarring.

Another strength that happysad has to its credit is its length. It’s not often that I praise an album for having only 10 songs and running just over half an hour. I usually prefer albums to have a little more meat on their bones, especially when it’s the first new thing we’re hearing from an artist who had been on hiatus for quite a while. But I liked those old Meg & Dia records for specific highlights, more so than as a continuous listening experience. Something Real started off strong but grew a bit same-y in its final third. Here, Here and Here had a pretty deep bench of killer singles and delightfully offbeat side journeys, but it was a bit much to take in all at once. Cocoon never really hung together all that well as an album, despite a handful of brilliant ideas here and there. happysad is honestly their first album where I can’t find a single bad or even mediocre cut. There might only be one or two that I think are great, but they’re all consistently good without falling into the trap of sounding interchangeable. There’s also a pretty solid balance of the expected youthful angst and some more tempered wisdom here. true to the title, Meg & Dia actually allow themselves to be happy and optimistic here and there, while also not flinching away from the difficult stuff they’ve been through or that their listeners have been going through. When I hear an album this strong from a band that the heartless cogs of the industry had tried but failed to destroy for good, I think to myself, who cares about marketability? Who cares about fame? Just make good music and mean it, and do it with people you love making music with, and that should be enough to sustain you. I realize that in a pragmatic sense, that might not always be enough to put food on the table for the Frampton sisters. But they’ve made a record that they can be proud of, and they seem to have won back their love for each other in the process. That’s a win in my book.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. American Spirit
You could probably forgive me for thinking at first that this was a Meg & Dia song in name only, what with the soft wash of synthesizers at the beginning, the rubbery bass, and the 80s power ballad feel. I realized soon enough that there is some guitar in the mix, but it’s used more for atmosphere. The trademark wit that these sisters brought to the table comes through loud and clear, though, reminding us that the sound may have changed, but the thoughts being expressed are very much their own.
This seems to be a song about living such a comfortable lifestyle, with such a wealth of options available to you, that you become numb to everyone else’s problems after a while. The most provocative lyrics come in the second verse, which could probably lend itself to a multitude of interpretations: “If I let go of holding tightly/Will I see Jesus in a stranger tonight?/The devil hides in Coca-Cola/But if I’m high, will I be more qualified?” The central questions here are found in the chorus: “Am I gonna get better/Am I drinking the Kool-Aid?” After a few uncomfortable years in the spotlight, it seems that the pursuit of celebrity and wealth (or at least a record label’s pursuit of wealth with her as their commodity) has left her disillusioned with the whole system. You could easily find more scathing indictments of a society built around cutthroat capitalism and narcissistic self-help philosophies, I guess, but this is a pretty darn good one, and a hell of a strange and satisfying way for Meg & Dia to reintroduce themselves after all these years.
Grade: A-

2. Teenagers
My favorite track on the album is up next. I adore the slinky, skittering beat on this one, and how the syncopated, 80s pop feel gets a bit of a scuzzy makeover by way of the DIY production values and Meg’s interjections on the guitar. The two sisters are definitely wistful about the rebellious days of youth here, but they don’t seem to be lamenting their own youth having passed them by in any way. They appear to be simply encouraging the next generation to keep running their mouths and challenging the status quo. So where you might expect some sort of a “kids these days” rant from a song with the title “Teenagers”, it’s actually a very positive one, saying that we need the unique flavor and the boisterous feedback from a generation that older folks are too quick to dismiss because they have lost the passion they once had when they were young.
Grade: A-

3. Koala
I’m honestly not sure if Meg & Dia are angling for a pop hit here, or trying to subvert the expectation that they should come up with one. The tropical pop flavor of its rhythm is easily recognizable from a slew of popular songs of the past several years (Ed Sheeran‘s “Shape of You” comes to mind, and he of course wasn’t the first). The piano is a more prominent instrument than it was on the first few songs, adding weight to the perky beat in the chorus. Yet while this all sets us up for a cutesy love song, a quick glance at the lyrics reveals some trouble brewing. Dia’s lyrics are confessional, admitting that she’s gone pretty far down the rabbit hole in terms of depression, and has had to rely on a lover or close friend to pull her out of it. So the quirky lyric about her being a koala is actually this other person’s way of encouraging her to hang on while they do their best to be strong for her. It’s because of this honesty about going through dark times that the lyric “I say I’m a wreck, I’m a fuckin’ mess” in the chorus comes across as believable – I found it quite jarring in such a bouncy song at first, and was a bit annoyed that it seemed to sabotage the song’s potential at reaching a wider audience. Despite whether you find that distracting or feel that it adds authenticity to a song about admitting when you’re feeling not at all okay and don’t want to pretend otherwise, the main point still comes across loud and clear – that sometimes we need someone to believe in our ability to bounce back during those darkest hours when we’ve lost all capacity to believe in ourselves.
Grade: B+

4. Lit Match
I love the bass on this moodier ballad. It sort of crawls throughout the song, giving it a murkier feel like the song is wading through a damp and dimly lit cavern. In one sense, this is a breakup song with a bit of a smoky, rock-meets-R&B sort of flair to it. But there’s also a hint of empowerment to it, since even in admitting that it whatever the person did to her hurt like hell and she can’t bury the anger, the effect it had on her as an artist was like a match being dropped into gasoline. In other words, she resolved to use that anger to write a song that would serve to help others find strength. This one is definitely the “sad” apex of happysad, but it’s an important part of the record’s overall commentary on understanding and owning your emotions, and the journey toward better mental health that comes from that process.
Grade: B+

5. Better at Being Young
While this song is a bit gimmicky, with its warped bass effects and a bit of Auto-tuning here and there to make the vocals sound more robotic, I have to say that it’s one of the damn catchiest songs they’ve ever come up. It veers slightly into glammy dance-rock territory on the chorus, which gives us what might be the best Meg riff on the album. It’s a tough hook to get out of my head. Here we have another strong mix of bouncy music and sorrowful lyrics, as they once again go through the flipbook of their memories from when they were younger and trying to make it as a band, and realizing how burned out they eventually got from the constant touring and angling for a bigger fanbase. I’d put this one under the same category as Here, Here and Here‘s “The Last Great Star in Hollywood”, in the sense that it’s taking a somewhat sneering look at stardom and noting that youth is treated as a commodity to be sold. Listening to this one makes me glad that they got out of that rat race before it sucked away all of the youthful spirit they had in them – otherwise this song might never have come to exist!
Grade: B+

6. Warm Blood
Man, this album just keeps delivering the solid hooks! This one marries some booming bass and a street-wise beat to a bit of acoustic strumming – it’s laid back and yet kind of badass at the same time. The lyrics appear to be about dueling voices in the singer’s head. One tells her she’s a has-been and she’s dead already; the other one tells her that her heat’s still beating, she still has people she dearly loves, and that’s what should matter. I like that this song pulls the trick of making you think at first that its pre-chorus is its chorus, which seems like a bit of an anemic refrain at first, but then they stack another chorus on top of that, and I think that’s what seals the deal and makes the song memorable. There’s also a nice change-up in the bridge, with a descending chord progression and some staccato strings coming in. They bring this back for the outro, which wraps this song up quite nicely on an album where a number of the songs have been on the short side and at times it’s felt like they weren’t sure how to end them.
Grade: B+

7. Boys Can Cry
Up next is another moody song here, but they smartly keep the tempo up, to make sure it comes across as more of a rallying cry and less of a lament. As you can probably tell from the lyrics, they’re challenging gender norms with this one, asking why anger is the only emotion boys are taught is acceptable to express, while girls are supposed to be nice and acquiesce to men’s wishes and never stand up for themselves. The first verse lays out the “boy” side of the problem while the second verse lays out the “girl” side, and they tie both together with a chorus that makes sure there’s no ambiguity to their main point: “Don’t get stuck believing the hype/Boys can cry, girls can fight.” Now as much as I agree with the genre-free paradigm they’re acknowledging, where all humans should be able to express a full range of emotions, I do think that this chorus runs the risk of getting repetitive, and I find myself wishing by the end of the song that they could name more things boys and girls could do or feel as well. Still, this is pretty good for a social issue-oriented song, and I appreciate how they admit in the bridge that it’ll take some time to get people who are stuck in old ways of thinking to come around and see that not all girls and boys are like the stereotypes. It won’t happen overnight, but it definitely needs to happen.
Grade: B

8. Distraction
Albums like this that find a lot of their value in the simple joy of a good hook, beat, or riff can get bogged down a bit in the ballads. I like how they circumvent that issue here by throwing in a flute to change up the flavor, and by switching back and forth between the acoustic and electric guitar. It gives the song a lot more color than it would have had otherwise, and keeps the heavily programmed pop sound from getting too repetitive. On the surface, this song appears to be about a rebound relationship, or perhaps a brief fling with an ex, that Dia steps back from, realizing they’re not helping at all with the recovery process, and what she really needs is to learn how to love herself, without the constant need to be in a relationship in order to feel validated. The lyrics have a bit of a sting to them, in that she knows it’s gonna hurt the person when she tells them she doesn’t need them any more. But it’s not necessarily a knock on them – she just needs to “take her shit and own it”, as she sings at one point, and stop expecting this other person to be her source of happiness when it’s clear they’re not meant to stay together. The mood here is a pretty solid mix of fragility and bravery – it’s not one of the songs that is likely to jump out at you your first time through the album, but it needs to be where it is on the road to emotional recovery that this song cycle has been charting.
Grade: B

9. Happy
Every so often a song comes along that hits you right away with an infectious bass line, and you can tell the song knows how well it is wielding its special power. Portugal. The Man did this with “Feel It Still”. Foster the People did it with “Pumped Up Kicks” (a trait that I have to acknowledge even though I hate nearly everything else about that song). That second reference may be especially apt here, as members of FTP co-wrote with Dia on her solo album on tracks such as “Billy the Kid”, and I feel like this one has a similar bounce to it, a welcome remnant from her days as a bubbling-under pop star. I mentioned earlier that “Lit Match” was the “sad” apex of this album, and this is clearly the “happy” apex. Everything else on the album falls somewhere between these two poles. What I appreciate here is that, for all of its glammed-up sounds and cheery “woo-hoos” and its carefree melody, this isn’t just an insipid song about just magically deciding to be happy. It’s the result of a process that is informed by the struggles in some of the earlier ones, and here Dia makes the observation that “Now that I’m happy, I’m ready to love someone.” This wasn’t a process that she could shortcut through sheer force of will. And this happiness wasn’t something that she was going to simply stumble upon by meeting the right person. This is the kind of happiness that came from learning how to truly love herself. I don’t know that any of us ever masters it, but she feels like she’s got the hang of it now more than ever before, and that’s the well she’s able to draw from when giving love to others, rather than expecting others to fill up hers first. When trying to write songs with actual depth to them, I’d argue that sad songs probably come more easily than happy ones, so I consider it an accomplishment when a group can come up with a song like this that has an infectiously positive emotion right there on the surface and yet still holds up to scrutiny. This is healthy happiness.
Grade: A-

10. Dear Heart
This track takes it back to how Meg & Dia started out – just two voices and an acoustic guitar. It’s absolutely heart-warming hearing the two sisters harmonizing again after all these years apart. As much as I was initially drawn to the band for their feisty rock energy, I’m getting strong memories of being pleasantly surprised by softer and more downbeat moments in their catalogue such as “Cardigan Weather” and “Love Is”. It’s a fitting note to end on, as they are singing from the perspective of being filled up and now having enough love to pass on to another dear friend who is hurting and desperately needs someone to believe in them. It’s the other partner’s perspective from “Koala” – just being there for someone to cling tightly to, without conditions, without trying to fix them or expecting them to suddenly manufacture a good mood just to make others more comfortable. As gorgeously as this song flows throughout, it feels a bit abrupt and entirely too soon when it ends on a final half verse, with no real embellishment or fanfare. I get that this is a slower, more intimate song that didn’t need to go big, but I could have easily listened to those sweet voices and that finger-picked guitar vamping for another minute or two, just to dwell in this peaceful mood for a bit longer before wrapping things up. Much of the reason I’m giving out B-pluses for a lot of the songs on this album is because so many of them are a combination of immediately engaging instrumentation and well thought-out lyrics, but have a slight sense of incompleteness in terms of knowing how to end the song on a strong note. Even though happysad has a reasonably strong narrative arc to it, this aspect of its songs is the main reason it doesn’t feel quite complete as an album.
Grade: B+

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
American Spirit $1.50
Teenagers $1.50
Koala $1.25
Lit Match $1.25
Better at Being Young $1.25
Warm Blood $1.25
Boys Can Cry $1
Distraction $1
Happy $1.50
Dear Heart $1.25
TOTAL: $12.75

BAND MEMBERS:
Dia Frampton: Lead vocals
Meg Frampton: Guitars, backing vocals
Carlo Gimenez: Guitars

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:

MORE USEFUL LINKS:
http://www.meganddia.com/
https://www.facebook.com/megdia/

2 thoughts on “Meg & Dia – happysad: Don’t you ever try to calm down that flavor.

  1. Pingback: Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2019: Favorite Songs | murlough23

  2. Pingback: Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2019: Favorite Albums | murlough23

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