The Sidekicks mellows down its rock confessionals this time around.
In the latest Sidekicks album, Happiness Hours, frontman Steve Ciolek continues to sing about what he knows best: the band’s home base of Columbia, Ohio, the minutiae of his life and the frustrations that he can no longer suppress. The Midwestern outfit previously delivered those signature points through an earnest yet wired rock sound that lived up to the title Runners in the Nerved World. But if that album resembled a clenched fist, with Ciolek singing through gritted teeth, Happiness Hours attempts to release that tension throughout its 12 songs.
The Sidekicks mellows down its rock confessionals this time around. The band still stocks energetic guitar riffs on the album, like in the deceivingly jolly numbers “Don’t Feel Like Dancing” and “Medium in the Middle,” but shout-out-loud choruses sung by Ciolek appear in more calm and collected rock jams. “Win Affection” could’ve been a sour declaration of loss atop a more angst-ridden riff, but the rather stately drift turns Ciolek’s surrender more into a sigh to shrug off yet another shot he missed. The deflated guitars of “Mix for Rainy Day” similarly takes on that emotional remove from already knowing just how the story will unfold.
While the band sets aside the broad strokes to introduce a statelier mood, it favors more meticulous songwriting filled with easily overlooked details. The songs center on very suburban scenarios: “Mix for Rainy Day” alone daydreams about mixtapes for romantic drives and sitting on a rooftop at night. While Ciolek teases out these hopes for modest victories, filler lines like “you’ve got that ‘Chronic 2000’ high-school state of mind” on “Twin’s Twist” to “I heard ‘Hotline Bling’ on constant loop” on “Medium in the Middle” create a specific picture of the small yet well familiar world within the record.
These seemingly mundane details end up building up to the song’s emotional punch, exuberantly delivered by Ciolek’s cathartic choruses. The titular shout of “Win Affection” captures a nervous breakdown of a love-sick introvert as the singer self-analyzes every frivolous attempt to get attention, and it packs more volume once he completes the rundown of his failure. Likewise, the more he obsesses over his elaborate daydreams to be next to the one he loves in “Mix for Rainy Day,” the “rattle in his cranium” grows louder and louder. These songs may be inspired by big feelings, but it’s the weight from overthinking the small stuff that leads to the collapse.
Rock music of the Sidekicks was made to express such adolescent anxieties as unrequited desire and confronting situations beyond one’s control, but the band is wise enough to know when to pull itself back on track from deep navel-gazing. Ciolek peaces out from his inner angst to indulge in personal nostalgia in “Twin’s Twist,” escaping into weed, alcohol and teenage memories. Slotted between his cries for the one he can’t have, it’s a rather laid-back track that gets a kick from mocking his own self-seriousness.
The title track expands upon that chill-out attitude in “Twin’s Twist” to tie the album together nicely with the record’s conclusion. Ciolek takes a step back in the drawn-out, acoustic-rock song to self-evaluate his behavior in a somewhat meta-passage that simultaneously puts a microscope to his self-obsessive creative process. He knows when to lean in to bring a more dramatic moment, but he’s also level-headed enough to remove himself so as to not get caught up in his own emotional mess. The album title hangs like a mantra, that this too shall pass, and it’s a mature conclusion reserved for a rock band who has spent more than enough time wrestling with its inner flaws.