Blue-eyed soul from the Isle of Wight
When one thinks of pop music infused with jazz, dub, funk, and South American rhythms, a shed on a tiny island on the south coast of England no doubt comes to mind.
That’s right, the kids of the Bees—23-year-old DIYers Paul Butler and Aaron Fletcher—hail from the Isle of Wight, where they wrote, performed and produced their debut long-player, Sunshine Hit Me, in a shed out in their backyard. Their approach to pop music is akin to ordering a hot dog with everything; from one bite to the next, different flavors push to the forefront. Sometimes you get a burst of the unexpected, but darn it if that something different isn’t as welcome as a mouthful of trusty mustard.
Sunshine Hit Me
(aka A Band of Bees)
US: 25 Feb 2003
UK: 25 Mar 2002
Sunshine Hit Me piles on the different genres from the get-go, shifting from Curtis Mayfield soul to reggae to Burt Bacharach pop with each successive track. The mishmash of styles may at first appear overwhelming, but the ease in which the Bees blend and mold their influences is as impressive as anything the Beta Band has recorded.
“Punchbag” sets the tone right off the bat, escorting the listener off into a laid-back mental state with jazzy trumpets and an easy groove. While the opening track can lull you to sleep, “Angryman” brings the soul and funk, starting off like a track on Superfly (especially the Mayfield-like falsetto vocals) and building to a funky, honking sax solo with a squelch of guitar that would make George Clinton and Funkadelic proud.
By far the most interesting coupling of songs comes in the middle of the album, with “A Minha Menina” and “This Town”. The former is a cover of the essential Brazilian psychedelic/tropicalia band Os Mutantes, who hit their peak in the late ‘60s. The cover is a joyous and loyal tribute to Os Mutantes’ effervescent hit single, this time sung in both Portuguese and English. Translated to “My Girl”, the cover is all fuzzed-out guitars and maracas that stands out from the rest of the tracks thanks to its rockin’ nature. “This Town” follows up the tribute to tropicalia and presents the Bees’ own angle on the wave of great bossa nova acts from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Gilberto Gil pops in my head whenever I listen to the song, with its shuffling beat and groove generated by slightly strummed guitars. A blip of organ serves as a rhythmic backbone, and the repeated chorus of “everyone’s free” begs to be sung in Brazilian Portuguese.
Butler and Fletcher travel north to the United States later in the album. “Sweet Like a Champion” is soaked in Simon and Garfunkel vocal harmonies and matches the older duo’s often-somber tone. “Sky Holds the Sun” moves like a classic Bacharach pop song, with bursts of horns pacing a steady gait to the finish line. The only thing missing is Dionne Warwick crooning the oft-repeated line couplet “I want to hold you / Like the sky holds the sun”.
“You Got to Leave” joins “A Minha Menina” as one of the few songs that chose to rock out, this time drawing from their own regional influences. With frayed guitar riffs and bombastic organ squalls, the album closes with a question and answer: what would happen if the Kinks were fused with the Who?
With that said, the Bees leave little room for improvement on subsequent albums. After spending years collecting equipment and amassing their various influences into one album, where can the Butler and Fletcher go from here? The songs on Sunshine Hit Me are reflections on times past. The seamless combination of the genres makes the album stunning; but is there any other music the band can mine for inspiration? In the day and age of processed, assembly line pop music—where when one band sells a few records, major label A&R drones find 15 others that sound just like the original—pondering the future of a band as innovative and intriguing as the Bees is a good thing. Whatever they have up their sleeve as a follow-up, it’s worth a listen.