When a band decides to pursue the path of change with a new album release, the trail is always fraught with danger. It seems that t.A.T.u. have attempted to brave this tricky task with their newest album, Happy Smiles (or Vesyolye Ulybki for those of you who can’t read Russian and would rather look at a jumble of incomprehensible letters than read the outlandishly stupid English title). The end result, despite the stupid name, is a more serious and mature effort than their previous albums, but one also lacking the poppy fun that was their signature.
There is a part of me that can see the good in this change. It’s something new. It’s no longer needlessly overproduced. They have slowed the tempo, delving into a more minimalistic, melodic style. It is, dare I say it, (slightly) more unique than their generic techno-pop of old.
t.A.T.u. actually manage to sound human on this album. Being able to tell a real, live female is singing the tracks is a major shift from the computer-aided fakery I was used to from them. That’s not to say the outside aid has disappeared from the vocals, because it hasn’t, but it’s less obvious, obnoxious, and ever-present than before.
For better or worse (which is to say, better), the duo’s trademark high-pitched caterwauling has also disappeared in favor of a lower-key (again, more human) approach.
On the other hand, that old generic techno-pop of theirs sure was catchy. This new material seems to have lost a little something by comparison. Happy Smiles is somber and minimalistic. Their first album was largely electronic instrumentation only, just like this one, but it was blippy. They’ve stripped all of the blippy out of this release. What’s left is more mature, but less fun.
Happy Smiles is bookended by its most memorable pieces. Beliy Plaschik and You and I hold up the front lines as the first two songs on the album, as well as the only two that really even remotely resemble prior albums. Indeed, You and I fulfills the requisite role of the new version of the All the Things She Said/All About Us formula, and it succeeds dutifully, almost managing to fade into mediocrity, but the changes to come on the rest of the album lend it a greater importance than it might have otherwise had.
Vremya Luny, placed second to last, provides something different. The sound is almost rock with even a tinge of industrial. t.A.T.u. has used guitars before, particularly on their second album, but this has a different feel to it. It’s a welcome and highly listenable change, marking one of my favorites on the album, though it probably would have been better served earlier in the lineup to give the plodding pace a little kick in the pants.
I will freely admit that I tend to be biased against slower music, but I did enjoy a lot of these tracks despite their slower nature. I’m not sure how much I’ll end up going back to the album as a whole in the long run, but there are some beautiful, well-done songs here.
Still, as a whole, the disc needed some pep to it. It could have used more songs like Vremya Luny. There’s a lot of good stuff here, but energy is hard to come by and somewhat unevenly distributed when it does appear. The album drags by the end as a result. The severe minimalism of most of the tracks doesn’t help, either. Even just a song or two closer to their older style might have livened the proceedings up a fair bit.
Happy Smiles is a change that is handled well and ultimately manages to impress, but fans of their prior work will feel a distinct void where the peppier, livelier tracks used to be. What’s here is good, but some otherwise memorable tracks are lost in a middle section that’s too flat for too long.
Happy Smiles, oddly, is not a happy disc, choosing to slow things down and introduce more mature, melodic elements. It works better than I would have thought, but I still can’t help but miss the catchy tunes I liked so much from their first album.
What can I say? I miss the blippy.
And seriously, what the hell is up with that cover? Really now, t.A.T.u. That’s just hideous.