Free The Bees
ree The Bees from what, exactly? The present? Debut album Sunshine Hit Me was an eccentric, eclectic affair, touched with jazz, funk, Portuguese folk, reggae and an easy, winning charm as expressed in sunny harmonies and breezy, nonsensical lyrics—imagine Gomez if they weren’t hoary old (before their time) blues obsessives, The Beta Band without the mopes, a bar-band tribute to The Avalanches, and countless other nice things that seem like the memory of summer distilled into song and caught on tape. The effortlessness with which this Isle of Wight duo moved irreverently from genre to genre, whilst still maintaining a sense of personality and stylistic unity, was refreshing, and pointed towards a future of forward thinking, tuneful experimentalism.
So to find their sophomore record (for which they have swelled to six in number) the most wilfully retro-styled album since Ocean Colour Scene last blighted this fair earth is a distressing disappointment. Sure, jazz, reggae and funk aren’t any newer than Manfred Mann, The Who and The Small Faces in the grand scheme of things, but some sounds simply seem sparkly and fresh and new no matter how long they’ve been around, whereas others appear to have been covered in the tedious and musty dust of time since they were conceived; Free The Bees is so deliberately, obtusely monochromatic (sepia, obviously) and crackly, so in hoc not just to the songs and ideas of the 60s but the sounds and smells and colours (as filtered through 40 years of mediated history and received wisdom, black and white television footage, warped vinyl and stories told by previously wayward and revolutionary but now just plain selfish Baby Boomers more intent on buying Harley Davidson’s in their sixties than actually affecting the great spiritual change they once saw as their right) that it already seems old.
To be fair Free The Bees isn’t a bad record as such, it’s just that this backwards looking, past-is-best philosophy so often smacks of a distasteful and conservative obsession with authenticity and tradition, as if sounding like the past is more important than sounding like yourselves. So “Chicken Payback” is a joyous, delirious and irreverent stomp (replete with a menagerie of wildlife impressions during the middle-8), but it’s still just a very respectful Rufus Thomas homage—why not just cover “Walking The Dog” or “Do The Funky Chicken”? Likewise “Wash In The Rain” is honky-pop as tuneful as you like, and “The Russian” is a delightfully weird, drawn-out moment of space whimsy, but they both sound like antiques already, and as such it’s hard to care for them in this day and age. It has always struck this reviewer that, apart from the entire exercise being faintly pointless anyway, the spirit of the 60s isn’t going to be recaptured by recording in the same Abbey Road studio that The Beatles used, even if your riffs and harmonies tick the retro boxes just as much as the mixing desk does.
Maybe the success of The White Stripes and their second-hand wisdom about what makes ‘good music’ (illusory similarity to aesthetics of heroes, appropriation of signifiers without signified, emphasis on using the same tools and avoiding studio trickery [because Brian Wilson and George Martin never experimented in the studio, obviously]) has had an effect on The Bees, because essentially Free The Bees is a trip through what somebody else thinks a small part of their record collection sounds like. It may be evocative of summer, but it’s an idealized and faded memory of summers long gone rather than the real thing.