It’s dangerously easy for “serious” music fans to equate feeling good with feeling dumb. Pop music has long been stereotyped as vapid and disposable pap because, let’s face it, that stereotype has been proven true more than once. But just as country music isn’t all shtick about cheatin’ wives and lost dogs, and rock and roll has died a thousand deaths, pop music doesn’t deserve its status, even amongst its fans, as a loveable ditz.
Los Angelinos the Bird & the Bee (Inara George and Greg Kurstin) are inheritors of the crafty, somewhat geeky, but still feel-good strain of stylish studio pop. The band’s 2007 self-titled debut established their fondness for Serge Gainsbourg, Esquivel, and tropicalia on songs like the cheeky “Fucking Boyfriend” and “Again & Again”, giving listeners ever so slight a pause between dancefloor beats to ponder the wit behind both the words and melodies.
Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future builds on its predecessor with even tighter concepts and hooks born of a naturally strengthening partnership. George’s glass-clear vocals own and command their melodies, whether on the cooing verses of “Ray Gun” or the Dance Dance Revolution stylings of “Love Letter to Japan”. As the songs tumble over jazz changes and through curtains of digital sparkles and effects, George is confident and on point. Kurstin, who has worked on records for everyone from Lily Allen and Kylie Minogue to the Flaming Lips, fills each construction with the just the right amount of layers, balancing space-age (i.e. a ‘60s definition of “space-age”) bleeps and blurps with subtler swaths of organ to support George’s lines.
The result is a limber, considered vibe that pervades the airy “Baby” and the indelible “Polite Dance Song”, which led off last fall’s Please Clap Your Hands EP. On the latter, George croons twists on classic hip-hop lines, “Give it up for me please / Throw your hands in the air / If you know what’s for you / You wanna shake it like you just don’t care”, over a thumping, vaguely narcotized rhythm section. Tellingly, the song at once exhorts the audience to dance and “show some brain”. The entire album provides just the impetus for both.
“Diamond Dave” is both a winking admission of kitsch-love and an earnest paean to Mr. Lee Roth. Atop twinkling piano keys, George purrs “Come on Dave / Show me what you got / I can take it”, reawakening youth’s capacity for unabashed fandom and joy in music. Immediately following, “What’s in the Middle” features not quite an Eddie Van Halen-level guitar solo, but something just as ornamental and pleasurable, rewarding those who choose to ponder its influences and those who just want to boogie down.
Each track on Ray Gun uses a different musical springboard to achieve this balanced end, from the ragtime piano of “You’re a Cad” to the starry-eyed ’80s disco of “Meteor”, there are enough layers to these songs to make them worthy of listening on headphones as well as at parties.