Writing the perfect pop song is a lofty goal, one that’s out of the reach of most songwriters. But Steve Ciolek is not most songwriters. The 29-year-old is the frontman of the Sidekicks, a Columbus, Ohio, quartet whose two most recent albums—2015’s Runners in the Nerved World and this year’s Happiness Hours—are packed with ultra-hooky pop-rock tunes that will bounce around your brain for a good long while.
Ciolek is always looking for ways to hone his craft, which is why he approached Happiness Hours with a goal: to write more clearly than he did on Runners (which he says has an “internal view”) so that more folks can find something to connect with in his songs.
“This record, some people might view it as more simplistic,” he says from a rest stop somewhere on the road to Buffalo. “But if people don’t understand what you’re saying in the song, it’s not their fault. It’s your fault as the writer. It goes along with the whole ‘chasing the perfect pop song’ thing, where it’s like, anybody should be able to hear it and understand it and think it’s good.”
The Sidekicks started in 2006 as a Cleveland punk band, but by the early 2010s, they had relocated to Columbus and were evolving into a vibrant pop-rock powerhouse heavily influenced by 2000s indie heroes like the Shins and Band of Horses. They signed to Epitaph Records for Runners, which attracted more positive reviews, more ears, and more attention.
All of which led to more anticipation and expectations for Happiness Hours. But Ciolek says those things didn’t really affect him and his bandmates—drummer Matt Climer, bassist Ryan Starinsky, and guitarist (and former Portlander) Toby Reif—as they worked on the record.
“We’re always just trying to write the most complete albums possible... and to me that’s a lofty enough goal,” Ciolek says. “Writing a really great song and trying to say something [fresh and exciting] within the context of a four-piece rock band is a test unto itself.”
Besides, getting radio play or glowing press in a far-off place is “hard to grasp,” he says. “It’s kind of in your imagination and almost not as tangible as when you go and play a show or just share the record with your friends.”
Even so, Happiness Hours is one of 2018’s best rock records so far—a 12-track collection where sharp hooks and sly melancholy collide over and over again. “Twin’s Twist” pairs a chugging, Pavement-inspired chord progression with a sweet-’n’-sour chorus. “Weed Tent” locks into a danceable retro-groove and never lets go. The main vocal melody of “Serpent in a Sun Drought” shines like daybreak over the horizon, and the vaguely rootsy “Summer and the Magic Trick” shows why the Sidekicks have toured with leading emo-revival lights like the Hotelier.
And then there’s “Mix for Rainy Day,” a delectable bundle of ringing guitars, insistent backbeat, and Big Star references that prove the Sidekicks may be closer to running down the perfect pop song than they realize. “Letting it lock into your cranium,” Ciolek sings against a backing chorus of glorious “oohs.” “If we shut up, I swear we’ll hear the songs of our years.”