Pursuit closing in on Happiness

by Ben Rayner, Ottawa Sun, December 13, 1996

For the past 10 years or so, Moe Berg and his bandmates in the Pursuit of Happiness have been pursuing anything but.

Irony and cynicism, yes. Anger and regret, occasionally. Self-loathing, uh-huh. But happiness? Be serious.

What a surprise, then, to hear Berg -- an admitted "crabby white man" -- crooning his way through a series of treacly (if tongue-in-cheek) love songs like Barry Manilow's intelligent younger brother on the new TPOH record, The Wonderful World Of The Pursuit Of Happiness.

To add to the surprise, The Wonderful World also finds the band sacrificing some of its trademark guitar-rock trappings for bouncy keyboards, violin, accordion and even a dash of fluglehorn. It's not a radical about-face for TPOH -- the first single, She's The Devil, rocks harder than anything it's done in years -- but it's enough to prompt a bewildered "huh?" or two from longtime followers.

"All of it was on purpose," says Berg, calling from Toronto in advance of the band's performance tomorrow night at Barrymore's. "It's always on purpose."

The idea this time around, he explains, was to make a seamless, "quasi-concept" record with a '60s- style production reminiscent of albums like Abbey Road or Thick As A Brick.

The result finds TPOH ripping through 14 tracks in 36 minutes, with nary a break between songs that loosely trace the gradual dissolution of a seemingly perfect relationship.

"If you listen to it out of sequence it might be sort of jarring," says Berg. "It's pretty short, so I hope that people have enough time -- about half an hour -- to listen to it all in one sitting ... We tried to make it short enough so that you didn't have to take a day off work to listen to it."

The "happiness" that marks so much of The Wonderful World is no accident, either. Rather, it was Berg's way of combatting through his writing an emotionally "kind of crappy" time in his life.

"I sort of had a miserable year when I was writing the record," he explains. Instead of wallowing in despair, though, he decided that the world already had quite enough crabby-white-man songwriters and made a point of jotting down lyrics whenever something positive happened to him.

Berg admits that he's content with at least one thing these days -- TPOH has finally found a fairly happy home with Iron Music, the label it jumped to for last year's Where's The Bone album after several years of being bumped from major to major.

While he's reluctant to paint Iron as "a charity," Berg says the smaller label is much easier to deal with than others that have forced the band to focus on business rather than artistry.

"You're required to sell a certain amount of records and once you've sold that many records, you're not allowed to sell any less," he says, adding that now, "I've basically just removed myself from the business."

The next business at hand for the Pursuit of Happiness is touring.

The band plans to hit the road in January, "when it's really, really cold and snowy and icy," after playing a few pre-holiday dates to warm up to the new material -- material that's proved unexpectedly labor-intensive.

"Our songs are so short we have to play like 1,000 songs a night to meet our contractual obligations," says Berg.

Copyright 1996, Sun Media, Canoe Limited Partnership. All rights reserved.

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