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Miike Snow, ‘Happy to You’ (Downtown)

SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: March 14, 2012
Label: Downtown

Whoever remarked that all music is soul music (James Brown? Florian from Kraftwerk?) would have been monumentally confused by Miike Snow, who it should be noted up top are actually three guys, none named Miike, or even Mike. Which isn’t to say this U.S./Sweden exchange program’s second album is soulless, exactly, but rather that its attempts at human warmth, using tools hybridized from the worlds of indie dance and full-on electronica, rarely succeed at raising temperatures. The band’s self-titled 2009 debut effectively stimulated hearts and hips; this one mostly just tickles them, the sensation pleasant but fleeting.

We know that the two Swedes behind the musical aspect of Miike Snow can synthesize brilliant crossover gold: As the production duo Bloodshy & Avant, Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg co-wrote and produced Britney Spears’ potent “Toxic,” among other smashing smash hits. With this clearly more personal project, they leave the singing and word-slinging to Andrew Wyatt, an American decidedly less charismatic than Ms. Spears. (Aren’t we all, though?) While it’s not his fault he can’t pull off a sheer body stocking brocaded with diamonds, it may be his fault that many of Happy to You‘s songs whimper when they ought to bang. He is, to put it directly, the weakest link.

It’s a strange step to take away from 2009’s joyous Miike Snow, which provided sonic thrills and a singer who hadn’t yet learned to take himself too seriously. That album’s slew of fantastic singles — “Animal,” “Black & Blue,” “Silvia” — took indie kids by the hands and gave them a primer on the particular bliss that only computer-driven beats can provide. It never required attachment to the kinds of plasticized pop stars that Bloodshy & Avant made their name with, offering an alternate path to a relatively similar place. Wyatt played the unthreatening, faceless singer — literally at first, since the trio used to hide their identities — perfectly, unafraid of big vocal melodies and safely soulful hooks. But the guy who playfully twisted his falsetto around the electro-reggae summer jam “Animal” seems awfully demure on album two, choosing to keep an even, serious tone at the expense of simpler pleasures.

Still, his wispier voice and some distractingly head-scratching lyrics (“Society thinks so highly of / This hotel I vomited on”) don’t sink Happy completely, and the fact that the band’s undercarriage has undergone a serious beefing-up helps. Where Miike Snow relied on replicas of actual instruments, this one brings in real strings and horns, and bolsters the all-important low end. Evidence of that newfound thickness comes immediately with the curiously titled album opener “Enter the Joker’s Lair” — is there a secret Juggalo in the band? — which splits the difference between ultra-respectable bedroom heads like Boards of Canada and the more dance-floor-friendly sounds the Swedes have made for other artists, including A-listers Madonna and Kylie Minogue.

Then it’s on to more direct pleas for the kind of orchtronic-pop affection that made their first record so ingratiating: If this whole album sounded like Happy highlight “The Wave,” which dips its toes in the kind of Brit-rock purveyed by Elbow but mixes in some organic, tribal fun à la Yeasayer, it could fill arenas. (It might anyway.) It’s the kind of song that Coldplay’s best intentions might allow them to make if the middle of the road’s allure wasn’t so strong. “Bavarian No. 1 (Say You Will)” wins, too, mostly because Wyatt sounds convinced of himself as a singer again; he actually reaches for some recognizable emotion with the parenthetical chorus then, realizing he can’t quite get there, coats it in some distortion and adds a handsome little whistle to bolster his case.

When Happy to You weaves away from the dance floor, though, its flaws magnify. Two sorta-ballads kill the mood completely: You won’t be surprised that a song called “God Help This Divorce” is a downer (and not a skilled one), and “Pretender” tries to find profundity in the line “Now I notice that I drink too much.” The latter only pulls away from the doldrums completely with some easy-but-effective Italo-house piano pounding — a trick used throughout when sleepy ideas need a quick boost.

Then there’s the maddeningly catchy, over-earnest “Archipelago,” which loses the electronics almost completely and reveals a timid but talented pop band that wants to be Phoenix but comes across like a Wings tribute act, minus the McCartney charm. If the music itself finds you on the fence, Wyatt’s lyrics could push you over the wrong side, particularly, “They said there was an ice age 40,000 years ago / Incidents of road rage, pouring on the streets below.” It’s a line that, like much of Happy to You, might have you wishing that Miike Snow would take a page from mid-’90s hip-hop and release a companion album, sans vocals. It’s the most ostensibly human ingredient of their music that, strangely, leaves some of it cold.