Boy Wonders is titled Happy Days Are Here Again, but they’re a little more reluctant in person. It’s understandable, given that they largely created and recorded the songs through 2020 and 2021, during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“The title is kind of ironic,” says Derek January, the band’s singer and guitarist.
“It’s a manifestation,” adds Joe Praksti, the band’s bassist. “Maybe if we name the record happy days are here again, happy days will be here.”
The boys of Boy Wonders are Derek January, Joe Praksti (also a member of Rave Ami), and Del Weinberg (who performs solo as Choice Words) on drums, who was added to the band after the album was recorded. What started as a solo project for January in 2016 has fleshed into a full-fledged band, and all three will perform the new album at their cassette release party at Cattivo on Sat., Nov. 19, with guests Pat Coyle and Sun Dawgs.
The album is now available on Bandcamp and streaming services.
The album sees January and Praksti squarely in the realm of their heroes: the rockabilly-inspired strumming of The Smith’s Johnny Marr, jangly harmonies of Brian Wilson, and layered pop tunes of Aztec Camera, whose 1983 song “The Boy Wonders” provided the inspiration for their name. They’re not shy about their influences.
It’s fitting, then, that January and Praksti met during a The Smiths vs. The Cure dance party at Belvedere’s Ultra-Dive.
“Instead of Robert and Steven, we decided we should be friends, not enemies,” jokes Praksti.
The album was recorded by January and Praksti, with the latter sharing bass and drum duties on most of the songs. In lieu of a recording studio, the two worked in January’s attic, a long, narrow nook that forced Pratski to play the drums at an angle to avoid the slanted ceilings. Complete with borrowed mic stands and XLR cables from The Government Center, a record store and music venue based in the North Side, the two tossed around ideas, often turning them into songs the same day.
“Something I’ve never done before is we were literally writing songs while we were recording them,” Praksti says. “While you’re laying it down, ideas start coming to you.”
Sometimes Joe would come to a session with an instrumental, and Derek would flesh it out with lyrics and a quick melody. The track “Hang Tight (It’s Gonna Be a Long Night),” in which January drawls with an echoey effect, “Look at you standing there / Twirling your golden hair,” arose from that off-the-cuff collaboration.
“He’s a very unpretentious songwriter,” Praksti says of January. “He’s very easy to collaborate with. You can see the path, you just have to walk down it, maybe clear out some shrubbery and leaves and you’ll get to the destination.”
January’s lyrics often deal in wordy whimsy. On “New Bedroom,” he pines, “Melancholy with the moony smile/Sunken eyes and teeth for miles.” Watch out, though, or you’ll miss the sharp insult in “Drain-O,” which flames the ex-lover, friend, or roommate in your life who you can’t stand anymore, with January singing, “Would be ex-janitor, clean up yourself,” overtop a barrage of drums. The two described it as a spiritual counterpart to the lovesick first track, “Why Should I.”
“It’s like two sides of the same coin,” January says. “One’s about falling in love with someone and not knowing how to express that and the other is about wanting to express like, get the fuck out of my face, I can’t stand you anymore.”
The flashes of Smiley Smile-era Brian Wilson harmonies on songs like “Hang Tight” are complimented by stretches of instrumental atmosphere pieced throughout the album. At the three-minute mark, the vitriol of “Drain-O” turns into a Cure-like guitar jaunt that fades into a shimmering outro. The sound is fleshed out five tracks later in “Lavender,” in which an unfeigned guitar plays overtop a swirl of sighs and keys. Originally recorded as music for a friend’s movie, the song provides a moment of repose as the penultimate track on the album.
On “Working Girl,” a rattling of drums and backing echoing vocals takes one back to a shared campfire tune. “She’s filling the shelves alone / Probably wishing it’s time to go/Begs the question, ‘Does she notice me?’” January wails. It might be a cry in the dark, but who better to wax poetic with than a friend?
Now that they have Weinberg as a drummer, January and Praksti look forward to their live sessions.
“It’s trending in a direction where now that we’re a band, I think that it just has more muscle to it,” Praksti says. “We’re playing to each other’s strengths now, complimenting each other.”
They promise to keep exploring their influences in their new music and to carve out a lane in the Pittsburgh music scene by digging into a '60s-style jangle pop reminiscent of bands like The Byrds. They might even ditch the attic for a recording studio. One wonders, are the happy days finally here?
Boy Wonders with Pat Coyle and Sun Dawgs. 8 p.m. Sat., Nov. 19. Cattivo. 146 44th St., Lawrenceville. $10. cattivopgh.com