Rare is a record so aptly titled as Sexy But Not Happy, the fuzzy and feisty 2012 outing from North Carolina pop-rock outfit Museum Mouth.
Sparked by buoyant bass lines and jittery drumming, the record explodes with aggressively colorful guitars and nervy choruses. The lyrics feed on the music's surging momentum, galloping through the girl trouble and growing pains that often drown dudes in their early 20s. But the title—despite its perfection—was a happy accident.
"I don't know who said it," recalls singer and drummer Karl Kuehn, explaining that the title originated during Museum Mouth's first tour, back in 2010. "It was just a resounding sort of thing like, 'Oh my God, those words perfectly describe, if not this band, at least the way all of us feel or want to feel.'"
Kuehn speaks via phone alongside bassist Kory Urban as they recover from a late-night drive in July. Guitarist Graham High couldn't leave his "real job" to accompany them on this trek, but he was replaced temporarily and twice over to fill out the band's sound. Adapting to such situations is a frequent task for Museum Mouth. Though Kuehn and Urban respectively reside in the adjacent coastal towns of Southport and Wilmington, High lives three hours away in Raleigh. The result is a mercurial live lineup that often shifts from show to show.
Museum Mouth makes depressing songs that move with a frenetic sense of fun. It's a thrilling dichotomy, one mirrored by the band's demeanor. Kuehn answers the phone groggy, having grabbed a mostly ineffective nap after driving through the previous night. The grind has him down, but he quickly perks up, excitedly announcing that the following day will find the band riding roller coasters at Ohio's Cedar Point amusement park and attending a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. As Kuehn and Urban speak, fun and frustration never seem too far apart.
"I think that's all we know is to write faster, catchier, poppier songs," Kuehn confesses. "But when it comes to lyric writing, I rarely sit down when I'm really stoked on something and say, 'Oh yeah, let me write some lyrics about how happy I am. These bunnies are great! My relationship rocks!' Those sort of things don't really happen to me."
Frustrations overflowed as Museum Mouth approached Sexy. The lineup that produced the group's 2010 debut LP, Tears in My Beer, broke apart as singer and bassist Savannah Levin moved on. At the same time, Kuehn was moving back in with his parents, struggling to figure out if he wanted to stick with his expensive education at the Savannah College of Art and Design or pursue music full-time. High was finishing up a degree at N.C. State and feeling similarly conflicted as to how much he wanted to stick with music. Urban, who took up bass in Levin's absence, was overwhelmed by relationship drama and his workload at UNC-Wilmington.
The stress of their lives spilled over into the music they were creating. Though Tears moves with a similar sense of youthful abandon, its blunted slacker-rock tones don't express the high anxiety captured within the new album's blistering, angular guitar lines. On the opener, "Goodbye, Evan," the band adds additional fuzz to Kuehn's impassioned vocal, causing his voice to bleed together with the song's seething central riff as he delivers a supremely pissed-off send-up of an old friend.
"I think the year that we spent writing Sexy was a really frustrating year," Kuehn says. "No matter how you cut it, the record that we were writing was going to be heavier and more aggressive."
The album seethes with sexual tension and existential angst, blurring the lines between the two in taut, emotionally potent pop songs. The title track typifies the style; restless riffs and herky-jerky drums back Kuehn's crackling croon. "I don't want a baby black widow," he cries, philosophizing a lover's disinterest in monogamy. Like many of Museum Mouth's best songs, it's an irrepressible mix of high-minded intellectualism and romantic melodrama, conflicted and cathartic in equal measure, expelling pent-up frustration and replacing it with empowering aggression.
"I think it's grown in a way that's made sense," Urban explains. "I don't think old Museum Mouth and new Museum Mouth are so different that they aren't obviously part of the same thing. It's a process that has made sense and that will continue to grow."
Right now, things are looking up. Museum Mouth is almost done demoing songs for a full-length follow-up they promise will be more upbeat. They're also hoping to find a label to release an upcoming EP of "goth songs"—four grungy dirges Kuehn wrote when he dyed his hair a "really ugly" purple and was wearing black all the time.
Museum Mouth tackles raw emotions with an immediacy few bands can match, but they never take that pursuit too seriously. "Being in this band is really fun," Kuehn says. "It sort of threw everyone for a loop when we had the frontman lineup change, but it's always made sense to us. Museum Mouth is one of those things where once it started, I was like, 'OK, this is what I want to be doing. This is the kind of music I want to be making.' It's easy to be in Museum Mouth."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Shiny unhappy people."