The Horns of Happiness is the solo project of Aaron Deer, who is better known as
the organist (with the art-rock leanings) of soul-rock band John Wilkes
Booze. Deer is also a fixture with the Impossible Shapes the Booze's
collective side-project, a dead ringer for an early Elephant 6 band and
it's in that band's fluid psych-pop and fragmented song structures that
A Sea as a Shore, his first effort as the Horns of Happiness, has been gestating.
The madcap A Sea as a Shore is maddeningly all-over-the-map, but it's also a minor masterpiece. Only one of the 15 sketches here extends beyond three minutes the trembling Olivia Tremor homage "Asleep the Already Known" and it's really more like three interludes stitched together, an atonal buzzing intro dropping dead before two conversing acoustic guitars, which then welcome a beautifully repetitious organ centerpiece, which in turn bows to a throwdown electric guitar thrashing over the song's final 30 seconds. At a wink over four-and-a-half minutes, it's a fantastic mini faux-epic, and also an early foreshadowing of Deer's complete lack of adherence to any discernible form whatsoever.
In this respect, A Sea as a Shore loosely resembles The Hour of Bewilderbeast, the masterful debut from Britain's Badly Drawn Boy. But Deer is even more kaleidoscopic in his scope than Damon Gough; whereas Gough consciously sought to write the perfect pop song in a different style each time out, Deer's compositions seem to reach their apexes purely by accident, ending abruptly the moment they become too easy or accessible. This ephemeral quality lends every track a transitory brilliance, a fleeting attainability best illustrated on the penultimate "The Return," where Deer delivers the crushing blow, "They ought to find me/ Laying in the grass/ Cranes flying over/ They ought to find me/ Buried here at last," singing over an achingly beautiful acoustic ballad that he seemingly tires of after two minutes, the fragile job collapsing under the weight of Deer's jumbled sonic debris.
A short coda later, the album ends with the same legato organ that began it, its laconic 35 minutes feeling hypnotically more like a languid 350. Shimmering, folksy, earthy and ethereal often all at the same time A Sea as a Shore is that rare branching-off that's so consistently stellar, it makes you wonder what the hell Aaron Deer's been doing for years messing around playing anyone else's songs.