The great tragedy of contemporary rock ‘n’ roll is that it’s only deemed “important” when it sounds “important”. Rock has been corrupted by existential gravity—more than likely a consequence of its legitimization as “art” over the last five decades—and, as a result, music that’s nothing more than great fun is now synonymous with “disposable”. Granted, albums by groups like Gnarls Barkley, the Hold Steady, and LCD Soundsystem have been positively received as of late, but their “fun” is laced with subtexts of paranoia, irony, and retro vogue, respectively.
I’m not sure that there’s a secure spot in the current music climate for the Bees, the freewheeling Isle of Wight collective led by multi-instrumentalists and singers Paul Butler and Aaron Fletcher. Indie crowds, insulated by their own pretensions, won’t let the band crack their precious façade; Top 40 fans, on the other hand, have been programmed to respond to lowest-common-denominator drivel, so this sort of thing won’t even register on their radar. Shame—the Bees (or, as they’re referred to in the U.S. due to legal reasons, a Band of Bees) are throwbacks to a pre-Radiohead/pre-Oasis era of British pop when direct, humble songwriting was king, and ambition need not transcend the three- or four-minute boundary of a song. Their third full-length, Octopus, is their best record yet. It merges the summery vibe of their genre-elusive 2002 debut, Sunshine Hit Me, with the ‘60s pop-oriented formalism of their sophomore album, Free the Bees, and the middle ground is both intimately homespun and aggressively populist.
This rampant eclecticism has drawn comparisons between the Bees and the now-defunct Beta Band, but the Beta Band was never this much fun. The Bees are like the Kinks in a circus tent, British at the core but confidently entertaining the influence of dub and reggae, Cuban jazz and California hippie pop, cowboy campfire sing-along and classic soul swelter. There’s oom-pah rhythm and Ringo Starr lightheartedness in “Who Cares What the Question Is?”, b-movie noir in the short-fused horns and Hammond organ of “Left Foot Stepdown”, and hints of unwound Afrobeat in “Got to Let Go”, a swift-moving three-chord vamp that serves as the record’s unofficial centerpiece. Elsewhere, the Bees deliver some of their most undeniable hooks: “Listening Man” leaves the Wailers strut of its verses behind for a chorus of yearning American soul; “(This Is for The) Better Days” plots an age-old rock maxim (“Well it’s alright now…”) atop a snarl of percolating guitars and Rhodes; and “Love in the Harbour” rings out like a long-lost Buffalo Springfield outtake.
“The End of the Street”, a short and sweet end to a short and sweet record, is populated by wolf whistles, sumo grunts, hand claps, car horns, and other snippets of rapid irreverence that stand in for certain words. Like Free the Bees’ “Chicken Payback”, “The End of the Street” is playful and more than a little silly—the exact kind of traits that frighten the “serious” bands that sit atop year-end lists and worry about… well, about not being taken seriously. The Bees, obviously and commendably, do not share these concerns, and Octopus is the infectious proof: eight arms to hold you if you’d only let them.
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