These days, it feels more and more like the aesthetic and, more importantly, the sound of a standard rock band arrangement, has taken a back seat to the flourishing of synthesizer tones, vocal alteration, and a steady reprisal of tonal expanse straight out of the 1980s. This isn’t a bad thing per se, just a shift in the perceived preference of the music listening public, away from the familiar interplay of guitar, bass, drums, and and toward other means of instrumentation to connect with all the emotions songwriters still chase and strive to convey through a song. Thankfully, the world is a big place and the social microcosms of the music landscape contain a multitude of communities. And this is how a music from a band like Rowan, flush with dense layers of guitar chords and punctuating drums, can not only appear seemingly out of nowhere amidst a sea of synthetic beeps but also present a debut album that flies in the face of so much digitized production and be received by listeners with excited fanfare rather than jaded boredom.
Of course, if it was just about an unexpected love of emotive but intense indie rock, Rowan and other bands like it would become more commonplace and the public would see another shift in the listening landscape, receding from today’s synthesizer fueled favoritism. Here is where Does It Make You Happy? makes itself stand out: The album isn’t surprising solely because of its sound. It’s the very heart of Rowan’s community of County Cork in Ireland, that gives the band’s 12 track debut its extra dimension of unique intrigue. As vocalist and songwriter Dylan Howe explained, “There’s not a huge indie scene in Cork, so we had to draw influences from elsewhere.” While Rowan’s earlier work, found on their 2020 EP No One Is Safe Here, did indeed come together with stripes of character from non-rock genres like classical, metal, folk, and jazz, what ultimately resulted was launched using the distinct musical personality of the electric guitar and thus, from there, Rowan has grounded itself as a firmly indie rock-oriented endeavor, which has in turn, came to fill a musical void in Cork’s music community not all that unlike the sonically jagged, hook and rhythm driven indie rock style of Brooklyn, NY’s DREAMERS.
Yet, Does It Make You Happy? carves out even more significance for itself in the listener landscape, with matters much more thought-provoking than simply taking root in an under-appreciated musical style of Rowan’s local community. This album tackles problems and questions of relationships. That topical focus sounds ubiquitous at first but, beneath the surface there’s an exploration of non-romantic relationships –– relationships with family, friends, even with oneself. Furthermore, with single “Irish to My Bones,” Rowan solidifies just how particular the significance of their community and the sound of the band is, and why the two elements are so uniquely intertwined –– perhaps revealing a prominent explanation for the music’s appeal.
For this song specifically, Rowan opens the door of socialized silence normalized for some of the Irish population around which Howe, Hennessy-Hayes, and Herron have grown up. And what’s more, they do it with a full-throttle dynamic push across the band. Chugging strums of Hennessey-Hayes’s lead guitar repeats a pair of notes for a higher octave minor second, that pierces with a clang-like tone – evoking thoughts of one sounding an alarm – fitting for a song imploring for the normalization of emotional openness. Herron’s steady but pounding beats on the toms and kick infuse the music with extra tonal weight, and Howe’s melodic leaning, but emotionally propelled vocals, which lean far more heavily on a strongly shouted delivery than that of conventional singing like what’s heard on calmer tracks like “Read it in the News” and “I Don’t Wanna Talk.” Loud songs are nothing new, songs with social commentary aren’t either. But put the two together and present it in a tonal format not currently leading the stylistic pack but is nonetheless excellent for getting one’s point across (less stigma around speaking generally about one’s feelings or even more importantly, about possible struggles with mental illness), and it’s incredibly difficult not to take notice or feel that much stronger of an impact from the sentiments Rowan is out to share.
Beyond making a thundering clash with their instruments, Rowan display flexibility with the way their instrumentation and Howe’s vocals convey the album’s other interpersonal narratives, using the instruments’ innate qualities. “Leave Now Go” and “Nothing’s Gonna Change,” which share a thematic thread focused on the value and necessity of self-reflection and one’s self worth, drastically different is tempo, dynamics, and emotional direction as shaped by each song’s respective melody. Where the former is more stripped down, leaving room for dancing piano lines and natural, wistful vocals and lyrics, the latter moves with at an energized jaunt, with the conceptually futile chorus written around an ascending melodic pattern. One could even say that the latter contends with contrast within itself, as the potential for perpetual struggle from a lack of developing one’s self confidence, is a rather serious topic that seems apt for the more reserved nature of “Leave Now Go.” Nonetheless, Rowan demonstrate how the concept of self-worth and identity can be fostered through a serious contrast of compositional style and performative tone.
The same variance of musical interpretation can be found in the likes of “Read it in the News,” Far From Truth,” and “Honesty.” Each highlighting the struggles people can face when not being fully open with others in their lives or even with themselves, the three tracks evoke distinct stylistic qualities shaped by leaning on different sonic aspects of the instruments and each member of Rowan’s ability to manipulate them. “Far From Truth,” touches on regret, a decidedly somber concept, with the light tone and rhythmic syncopation of classic indie pop. Meanwhile, the titular concept of “Honesty” and the shortcomings that people may have with it, seem to find symbolic representation through both Howe’s natural voice and the tone bending of the guitar. There’s a subtle roundness, a sliding lilt to Howe’s singing on this track and combined with the slurred and bent tones of the guitar in the interlude, there’s a subtle nod to the way everyone can bend, stretch, or otherwise distance themselves from the words they are trying to say or perhaps avoid. It’s a clever performative attribute that makes the music feel easygoing. This is both ironic given how the truth can be hard to face, and entirely fitting, as avoidance by lying to oneself through denial, can be all too easy to lean on.
The somewhat scrappy tonality of Rowan as a whole traverses the many conceptual angles of Does It Make You Happy? quite well. The whole album exudes a sense of spirited, rough-around-the-edges intention because of this underlying quality. Regardless of what form of adversity is explored across the record, every one of the individual narratives contends with a degree of lingering obstruction –– whether self-imposed or publicly reinforced –– on the way to realizing the emotionally healthy aspirations outlined in each song. Does It Make You Happy? doesn’t claim to have all the answers; nor does Rowan claim to speak for everyone in Ireland or everyone whose every dealt with the kind of emotional turmoil in their music. What Rowan and their debut do execute to much success, is to showcase the pursuit of better and the realism of the real world’s obstacles to get there, with melodies, harmonies, effects, and emotive performance that go on to inspire action or thoughtful rumination and reflection, at just the right time and in just the right ways that we can all hope will make a true difference.
Keep up with Rowan through its official website and these social media platforms: