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A Band of Bees - Free the Bees

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Artist: A Band of Bees

Album: Free the Bees

Label: Astralwerks

Review date: Aug. 9, 2005

It must be thrilling to possess as much talent and history as the six gentlemen who comprise A Band of Bees. To have the ear and the sensibilities and the skills to recreate a past that never was, to promote scene miscegenation that would have never crossed paths, to roam all over the history of rock and soul musics from 1964 to the early ’70s, picking off the parts that you don’t like as the vegetarian pulls pepperoni off a slice of pizza. These are enviable talents in the world of popular music today. It symbolizes a passion and reverence for the past, a knowledge of production styles and sounds that’s both deep and wide, and the desire and capabilities to act upon these sounds as a tribute to what we can imagine was a purer, more wistful time in the world. Wouldn’t it be great if the obscure hits on our oldies station comprised the Top 40 and all the lost bands that magazines like Mojo and Ugly Things unearthed could achieve the successes that history and time denied them?

Creating a past that never existed, with all the hindsight of the present, seems to be A Band of Bees’ M.O., and they do a solid, commendable job as a crack team of session men. Five of the boys in this sextet are multi-instrumentalists run roughshod over EMI’s legendary Studio No. 2 (a big improvement from the toolshed in which they allegedly recorded their debut), and they took advantage of their production and instrumental know-how to make an F-for-fake artifact, right down to the tape hiss and tinny ’60s recording vintage. They have several types of song: the early ’60s dance craze (“Chicken Payback,” with its call-and-response familiarity, Tijuana brass, and plunkety guitar straight out of “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress”), the early ’70s sap-filled blue-eyed soul ballad (“I Love You,” which could have come from Thom Bell or Gamble/Huff themselves), the ethnomusicological (“The Russian,” awash in Afrobeat and island riddims), and the confessional Caucasian R&B (“The Start,” like Them or Animals lite). All these examples are fine as songs, in particular “Chicken Payback” – a type of music that isn’t being made anymore; which was made at a time when artists could establish themselves with just one single; when the album itself was an afterthought, a vehicle used to sell that one idea they had and largely fleshed out with covers and catalog tunes from their label or management. They work best when they’re in this mode, when they’re at their most disposable.

Aside from those four songs, Free the Bees is mealy, unmemorable mod-hippy-dip pop-rock junk. The band falls apart attempting to sound like the whole of the late ’60s and the start of the early ’70s all at once, like listening to The Notorious Byrd Brothers, American Beauty, Moby Grape’s self-titled, the Hollies’ Stop! Stop! Stop! , and a Sloan record played simultaneously; a tepid mash of classic styles all fine on their own that cancel each other out when played together.

Whole chunks of missing and undiscovered music from the era the Bees fetishize are surfacing every day, music that most people have only had the chance to read about. If retreads like A Band of Bees are any indicator, we’re better off rediscovering these sounds than reinterpreting their era.

By Doug Mosurock

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