[2 October 2007]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Imagine, if you will: a world in which The B-52s were produced by Phil Spector, where “Mister Sandman” is as popular as Britney Spears’ “Toxic”, and retro-chic is so chic. This is the world of the Pipettes, a UK group that adds an indie-rock sensibility to the Brill Building pop of yesteryear, all repackaged with a delightful Day-Glo sheen. It’s not deep, lasting, or even important: this is pop music at its most carefree, and in a world of rehashed alt-rock and high-fi production decadence, the Pipettes are a breath of fresh air.
Like many worthwhile UK buzz-acts, the Pipettes arrive in the US with a mysterious history and questionable creation stories. Apparently, Monster Bobby (real name Bobby Barry) was an aspiring DJ who—after reading the KLF’s infamous hit-making Manual—wanted to bring the feel-good vibes of girl-group pop to a modern audience. Barry manufactured the Pipettes, much like the Backstreet Boys or (shudder) O-Town. Having signed to Memphis Industries (a British label best known for introducing the world to The Go! Team), the group began releasing singles and hitting the road. As a matter of fact, We Are the Pipettes has been available in the United Kingdom for well over a year, and only now is it seeing the light of day in the States. Yet a lot has happened between when PopMatters initially reviewed it and now: the Pipettes pop-revisionism isn’t as novel a concept, especially in the wake of like-minded group like the Puppini Sisters and eclectic pop historians Pink Martini. One year later, does We Are the Pipettes retain any of its supposed edge?
Before rock and roll woke up for the first time, girl-group pop absolutely dominated the airwaves, and Phil Spector was a very busy, very rich man. Those Brill Building tunes of yore were generally innocuous: carefree affairs of fleeting romance, heartbreak, and any emotion that can be squeezed between those two extremes. Yet the realm of girl-group pop has a seedy underbelly that has only come into light in recent years. The must-own box set One Kiss Can Lead to Another was a four-disc affair of multi-harmony rarities that were lovely and deranged in equal measures. Indie-rock act Grizzly Bear made headlines this year with their gorgeous take on the Crystals’ controversial classic “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)”, a song that nearly ruined the original group’s entire career. Even top-banana groups like the Chordettes (responsible for both “Mister Sandman” and “Lollipop”) got vaguely political on songs like the troops-come-home rally that was “Lay Down Your Arms”—a song whose lyrics are as potent now as they were 50 years ago. Why mention all this? Because the more one knows about the history of this powerful subgenre, the more enjoyable your experience of We Are the Pipettes will ultimately be.
Girl-group pop could occasionally be profound, sometimes even emotive, but more often than not, it was just big dumb fun. “Pull Shapes”, the Pipettes’ knockout lead single, is about as infectious as pop music can get. You can listen to it a dozen times and still have no idea what it’s about, just like any good guilty-pleasure pop song. “Pull Shapes” runs off of a feel-good template that’s copied from one of the best Brill-happy songs of all time, Linda Scott’s “I Told Ev’ry Little Star”. In fact, that template is so good, the group winds up reusing it quite a few more times, like on the enthralling “Your Kisses Are Wasted on Me” (where the pre-chorus trumps the actual chorus), the string-laden “I Love You”, and “Dirty Mind”—which most definitely is not a Prince cover (though it’s almost as fun as one).
Yet, if the album was nothing but feel-good non-sequitors, then the Pipettes could be dismissed as nothing but bubblegum-fluff. However, there’s a certain snideness, cynicism, and rebellious attitude that lurks underneath We Are the Pipettes which ultimately makes it a more compelling and lasting listening experience then you’re lead to believe. The effortless “ABC” sounds so simple upon first listen, but this boy-bashing song still carries a surprising amount of weight: “He’s always got his head in a book / He doesn’t care about our looks” the girls sing, but in a world where MTV runs shows like The Hills and Laguna Beach all the time, it makes an interesting statement about modern-day vanity. The chorus ends with the vain girls (with the unique stage names of Riotbecki, Gwenno, and Rosay) taunting the bookish young man, saying that he’ll “never know about ecstasy”.
Yet, given how this was recorded way way after 1958, the song could be doubled-over as a possible drug reference as well, as if the girls are thinking that drugs and/or sex will be the thing that ultimately breaks him from his hard-studying girl-ignoring habits. Is this reading into the words too much? Absolutely! It’s that very feature that makes the album such an intriguing listen: since the group is taking a post-modern approach to such a seemingly innocent genre, there are many opportunities for darker themes to attach themselves to the bouncy melodies (like on the gender-bending friendship ballad “Judy”). Your average 12-year-old girl wouldn’t pick up on any of these subtleties, but if you want to find darker meanings and crippling social criticism, then songs like “ABC” just might wind up surprising you.
However, even with rock-solid ballads (“A Winter’s Sky”) and ridiculously catchy synth workouts (“Dance and Boogie”), We Are the Pipettes is far from perfect. Album opener “We Are the Pipettes” sounds more like “Planet Claire” than “Leader of the Pack”, with the playful condescension of the lyrics wearing thin mighty fast. In addition, if certain songs were placed side to side (like “One Night Stand” and “Why Did You Stay?”), they would be virtually indistinguishable from each other. Perhaps the strangest aspect of the album is how it sounds longer than it actually is. The album, in fact, clocks in at just under 40 minutes, but since those 40 minutes are split between 16 tracks, the album winds up having an awkward flow, sometimes repeating itself melodically. It lacks the cohesion of a true “album”, instead making more of an impact as a “collection of singles”, which—let’s face it—is what it really is.
Yet when all is said and done (and all the polka-dot outfits are hung up for the night), We Are the Pipettes is a solid debut. It doesn’t break any new ground, nor is it an essential add to anyone’s listening canon. It’s effervescent ear candy with a dash of nervy taboo, sometimes hinting at deeper emotional crevices that—by law—this type of pop is not supposed to be dabbling in at all. Imagine, if you will: a massive critical re-evaluation of girl-group pop, a short-lived but guilt-free revival of said genre, and a Pipettes sophomore album that pushes even more borders than this one. It’s a Technicolor dream that—thankfully—isn’t as far away as we’d be lead to think.