Kody Nielson's Birthday Suite consists of a dozen instrumentals named after his family members and written as themes for their respective birthdays. The songs are generally bright, upbeat, and celebratory, with baroque-influenced melodies played on vintage analog synthesizers and live drums, bringing to mind Wendy Carlos, Perrey & Kingsley, Dick Hyman, and anyone else who was making Moog records back in the '60s.
This is Nielson's first full-length under his own name, and it's yet another stylistic shift in a career that has ranged from angular noise-punk (the Mint Chicks) to indie psych-pop (Opossom, Unknown Mortal Orchestra) to lonely downtempo electro-funk (Silicon). Nielson hinted at this album's direction with Devils, his 2013 solo EP, but that digital release, as intriguing as it sounded, was a rough fusion of jazz, Afrobeat, and funk that felt much more tentative and experimental.
Birthday Suite, however, is much more fully developed, and could nearly pass as a lost artifact from the era it's emulating. The arrangements are incredibly tight, and the songs are all bursting with character; one would assume that they perfectly encapsulate the personalities of the people whose birthdays they are honoring. "Bic's Birthday" (named for Nielson's partner, New Zealand pop superstar Bic Runga) has funky breakbeats and melodies that sound like a voice singing through a vocoder, but no words are actually revealed. "James's Birthday" comes closer to a disco groove, but still contains a heavy dose of the baroque. As joyous as the album is, there is a trace of a darker undercurrent to tracks like "Frida's Birthday," which is noticeably colder and cloudier than some of the other songs.
Slightly divergent is the broken, blunted funk of "Azure's Birthday," which could be a secret weapon for any number of Stones Throw-affiliated DJs. Had Birthday Suite been released during the '90s, it probably would've been lumped in with the lounge craze, and the comparisons to the Moog Cookbook would've been endless. While that brilliant project thrived on the sort of hipster irony that was inescapable during the '90s, Birthday Suite is entirely removed from all that, and seems far more genuine and original.