By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Advice from the Happy Hippopotamus
It's easy to make an epic album--just record a lot of songs, tell everybody there's some sort of concept behind it, and boom, instant Work of Art. But creating a self-sustaining sonic universe that people actually enjoy lolling around in for an extended period of time? Not so easy. And luring listeners into that universe is even harder when you saddle it with a hippie-dippy name (Advice from the Happy Hippopotamus), hippie-dippy artwork (computerized images of space-helmeted children at play in somebody's acid freakout) and a hippie-dippy cause (label donates all its profits to environmental charities; album was recorded in a studio made from recycled materials). But Craig Minowa, the brains behind the local indie rock band Cloud Cult, is a crazy-genius Pied Piper of excess. He distracts you with the granola-flower trappings until you've fallen so far down the rabbit hole you don't want to ever come out. There's a horror lurking underneath it all, but there's also redemption.
Here's the deal: Advice, which includes 25 tracks in 64 minutes, is the fifth Cloud Cult album in five years. Four of those have been written since the death of Minowa's two-year-old son in 2002, and the subsequent crumbling of his marriage. Advice is riddled with references to these tragedies, if you go looking for them. "I think it could still be just like Norman Rockwell," Minowa sings over the spacey bleeps and bloops of "Norman Rockwell," his desperation to return to a pastoral past transforming his Isaac Brock-like yelp into something sinister and unhinged. "Start New" mourns the inability to do just that: "I bought a new shirt and I got new socks/But my skin's still made of memories." The off-kilter funk jam "Happy Hippo" quotes Neil Young's "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)," but when Minowa recites the "better to burn out than to fade away" line, he doesn't sound convinced.
Advice isn't all doom and gloom. In fact, it's far from it. The music itself is overwhelmingly joyful, with shaggy, fuzzed-out riffs skipping over bubbly approximations of hip-hop beats, and all sorts of kitchen-sink instrumentation (flute, bells, fiddle, banjo) popping up in unexpected places. The melodies' shambling innocence is what makes songs like "Living on the Outside of Your Skin" and "Transistor Radio" so seductive; if you don't know the backstory, this is a happy, overstuffed indie-pop record. Maybe that's the point. Like any successful epic, Advice is an escape from reality.