Paper Holland might as well have stepped out of a time machine. Besides the fact that its debut album – prophetically titled Happy Belated – took four years to complete, the band itself sounds like a late but not unwelcome arrival to a party thrown by Death Cab For Cutie and Nada Surf in the early 2000s. Those bands – with their gentle indie pop and emotionally raw lyrics – are clearly influences, and for that reason alone, Happy Belated feels plucked from the Discman of a heartbroken mid-aughts teenager. Bearing in mind that the songs were written four long years ago, just as the wave of emo-indie-rock groups like Death Cab, Modest Mouse and Bright Eyes was beginning to recede, Paper Holland’s anachronistic sound makes a lot of sense.
So, while Happy Belated may sound a bit dated, Paper Holland does not blindly follow the path that had been freshly beaten by its forebears. Despite its lyrical heartaches, Happy Belated exudes a scruffy optimism, evident in the handclaps on upbeat rocker “Follow Script” and the loopy guitar flourishes on shuffling “Don’t Wake Me Up.” The band even shows flashes of brilliant lead guitar work, especially on back-to-back standouts “Happy Belated” and “Without My Mind,” whose spiraling guitars help flesh out the simple structures. And while lead vocalist and songwriter Joe Tomcheck frequently intuits the vocal ticks of Ben Gibbard, he is melodically inventive in his own right, most notably on the neat pop number “Rory,” on which he stretches the word “hair” up and down the scale.
Piecing an album together over the course of four years is no short order, so it’s not surprising that Happy Belated sounds a bit disjointed. “Still In Bed” feels like a patchwork, with a slide guitar that sticks out like a sore thumb amidst some bland chords and backup vocals. Certain songs, like “No Going Back,” bear too many fingerprints of studio engineering, with a noticeably different recording quality and a drum track that sounds tacked-on out of nowhere.
You don’t need to know anything about Paper Holland to enjoy Happy Belated, but the four-year backstory adds an interesting extra layer. A good Gibbard imitation becomes an intriguing snapshot of the past. Imperfections turn into battle scars, inflicted over the course of the album’s long trek to completion. And the album title comes full circle. That said, let’s hope it doesn’t take four years to hear what Paper Holland does next.