Of the many acts in the orbit of Chapel Hill producer Jeff Crawford's Arbor Ridge recording studio, Alex Wilkins' pop outfit Tripp hasn't been among the most visible. Their gigs around the Triangle lately have been few and far between—Wilkins' collaborators are often busy with other projects, and perhaps his own work as a schoolteacher takes up much of his non-summer time. Records have been rare, too; We Are Happy Here is Tripp's first release since 2008's Good Boy Charm.
The band earns attention, though, for the insistent effervescence of Wilkins' songwriting. His is a purer brand of pop than the indie realm tends to traverse. In the 1980s, it might have been considered down-the-middle commercial, but in 2012 it stands off-center for its professionalism. Wilkins has no interest in hiding behind sonic overload or trickery, putting the vocals up-front and pointedly singing with clarity. His bandmates—keyboardist Charles Cleaver, drummer Paul Fisher and bassist Alex Van Gils—flesh out his mostly romantic paeans with engaging melodicism and upbeat tempos, crafting radio-friendly fare for a post-radio age.
"Now or Never" kicks off the record with an immediate pop punch and a vivid opening line: "It took all night to write our names on the overpass/ Hanging on for dear life every time the cops drove past." "Ragdoll" packs a harder wallop still, with crunchy guitars and Cleaver's colorful piano runs propelling Wilkins' rhythmic words. "Annie" is quieter but gorgeous, a minor-key ballad that balances the album's overall sunny disposition with a grounding touch of gravitas.
The album's beauty doesn't quite keep for all 11 songs: "Calling to Let You Know" feels a bit too reliant on Beatlesque riffage, while "Reputation" forces a funky groove. But the highs outnumber the lows—and although we probably didn't need another song titled "Crazy" (hello Willie, Seal and Gnarls), there's a confident grace in the tune's chorus and heartfelt emotion in Wilkins' voice when he reaches high to advise, "Scream it out, get it off your chest."