[25 March 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Well, it’s official. Liking Hall & Oates has reached the tipping point. If it didn’t already with Ben Gibbard’s “Top Ten Hall & Oates Songs” on Pitchfork, their becoming YouTube and SNL fodder, the “You Make My Dreams” production number in (500) Days of Summer, or the Fruit Bats’ recent cover of “One On One” for The Onion‘s A.V. Club, it certainly has now.
What a paradigm shift. Ten years ago, Hall & Oates were a punchline if they got any attention at all. But the 1980s are in again, in a big way. Though the time period represents less than half the duo’s career, it’s the decade they’re most associated with, the one they piloted an unstoppable hit machine through. The result of all this is more than just a cool reference for indie bands and filmmakers. It’s one of the more justifiable critical reassessments in recent memory. It allows an indie band like the Bird and the Bee to make a Hall & Oates cover album and call it Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates, without being ironic in the slightest.
Actually, that title is a bit of a misnomer, and it’s not “masters”. It’s “interpreting”. One definition of “interpret” is, “to perform something such as a play or piece of music in a way that conveys particular ideas or feelings about it.” Interpretation suggests a sort of translation, from one artist to another. But what the Bird and the Bee are really doing here is more replication, reproduction. If the chic LA duo of producer/musician Greg Kurstin and singer Inara George convey an idea about Hall & Oates’ music, it is, ironically, that Hall & Oates’ versions of their biggest hits are so definitive and well-arranged, they require very little interpretation.
In other words, what you’re getting here is straight-up covers, with meticulously reproduced arrangements, right down to most of Hall’s trademark phrasing and ad-libbing at the ends of lines. Heck, even the originals’ guitar and sax solos are reproduced, note for note, by woozy synthesizers. The differences, then, are all in texture. Instead of compressed drums, punchy guitars, and a well-honed studio sheen, you get the low-key, often analog synths and drum machines that were on display on the Bird and the Bee’s two previous, all-original albums. Instead of Hall’s blue-eyed soul, you get George’s doe-eyed vulnerability. Blue Note Records may be expanding the scope of its roster, but you still can’t get on there if your music wouldn’t suit a cozy bistro, corner café, or smoky jazz club. So the Bird and the Bee’s versions are mellow, mildly jazzy, and emotionally remote. This approach reveals a new side of the song only on “Kiss on My List”, which makes a nice piece of dreampop. Otherwise, if you like your Hall & Oates during cocktail hour, here’s the album for you.
No, Kurstin and George’s tribute is not bad. It’s not offensive. Nor, thankfully, is it kitschy. It’s just a bit bland and pointless. Or, if it does have a point or two, they’re incidental. For one, Interpreting the Masters Volume 1 underscores the truly universal, timeless pop appeal of Hall & Oates’ songwriting. It’s as impossible to resist singing along to the Bird and the Bee’s renditions of “Rich Girl”, “Private Eyes”, or the other seven tracks here, as it is to the originals. In that sense, props to George for staying so faithful! Also, you’re forced to appreciate what a great vocalist Hall truly was/is. Where George’s delivery is respectful, on-key, and flat, Hall dared you not to dig him and the songs he was singing. It was a dare tens of millions lost. Finally, if you take only one lesson from Interpreting the Masters Volume 1, it’s this: No one, no one, messes with “I Can’t Go For That”.
Kurstin and George might have used this as a chance to delve into, or introduce fans to, the many dormant parts of Hall & Oates’ backcatalog. However, covering “Abandoned Luncheonette” doesn’t land you a gig on Ellen, as Interpreting the Masters Volume 1 has done for the Bird and the Bee. The bottom line is, if this album encourages people to go out and get Rock ‘n’ Soul Part 1, mission accomplished.