When the Bees’ co-founder Paul Butler announces “these are the ghosts” in Free the Bees‘ lead-off track, it’s not insincere showboating. The record’s dozen songs are ghosts, aural apparitions of ’60s rock, soul, and funk that resonate like a séance on tape. The album’s very sound is worn and disheveled as if it has weathered decades just to arrive here in 2005 to masquerade as a new recording. And while this kind of functional homage, this reacquisition of a bygone era, is nothing new in the slow adolescence of rock ‘n’ roll, no album in recent memory has summoned the crackling, compressed char of aged analog with such eerie precision.
Free the Bees is a 180 degree artistic swivel, a complete sonic makeover that bears almost zero resemblance to the band’s 2002 debut Sunshine Hit Me. The Bees (who are legally obligated to go by the name A Band of Bees in the U.S.) may have freed asses with the infectious percussion-prodded grooves of their first record, but now they’re spastically liberating appendages and minds. The Mercury Prize-nominated Sunshine Hit Me was recorded almost entirely by Butler and Aaron Fletcher in the duo’s Isle of Wight shed-cum-studio; Free the Bees, on the other hand, adds four additional musicians to the official line-up and takes them to London’s Abbey Road Studios. Gone are the stoned, head-nodding flirts with reggae, dub, and funk. Free the Bees abandons its predecessor’s pristine sound for loud, ragged psych-pop with nothing but cage-free horizons in its eyes.
The band places heavier emphasis on songwriting form the second time around, contrary to Sunshine Hit Me‘s mellowed-out, textured aesthetic function. The shift in focus offers ample room for wide-reaching stylistic allusions. Album-opener “These Are the Ghosts” simultaneously lends the record its ramshackle embrace of all possibilities and blows away previously formulated perceptions of the band’s identity. The song tangles itself up in a raucous tizzy of ’60s-via-’00s revivalism, drums flailing, vocals urgent and seemingly out of character (and one of the record’s engineers contributing a crucial “whoop!” to the convulsive jam). “Wash in the Rain” is an amalgam of the Spencer Davis Group and the Small Faces, its burly Hammond organ and electric guitar clenching up in each chorus’ chunky climax. “Horsemen” pursues a groove of a different kind, the thick, backhanded guitar chords trading the Kinks pounce of the verse for the cathedral harmonies of the Zombies in the chorus. And the sax-led circus oscillation of “Go Karts” (the album’s one song sung by Fletcher) dizzily brims with contented repetition, suggesting the whirl of Odessey and Oracle adorned with Stax horn charts.
Not satisfied to romp around in one musical playpen, the Bees wander outside the realm of ’60s British rock to explore other touchstones of the era. “Chicken Payback” is a sweat-breaking soul workout, a perpetually twisting party song like the Bar-Kays’ “Soul Finger” complete with nonsensical lyrics and farm animal noises that recall some of the playful moments on The Beatles. “The Russian”, the record’s sole instrumental and closest it gets to sounding like Sunshine Hit Me, is a bubbly stew of Hammond and Rhodes, muffled guitars, and horns gyrating on a funky drum beat — think the Meters donning paisley sunglasses after ingesting spiked punch. They even try their hand at classic soul with the mid-tempo “I Love You”, saturating the horns in reverb, setting the Hammond on “simmer”, and nailing dainty, Delfonics-inspired background harmonies.
It really is quite difficult to believe that the band behind Free the Bees is the same one responsible for Sunshine Hit Me; while one record isn’t necessarily stronger than the other and both are equally eclectic, they seem to be jumpstarted by wildly dissimilar muses. Even more impressive is the Bees’ capacity to not only seize upon vintage sounds, but to present them as sounds rediscovered and reconstituted. “Bury the memory / We don’t want to go back,” the Bees insist, yet must be aware that words are in vain, that they have gone back, that they’ve brought the irrepressible memories forward to the nooks of the cranium, and, if not made them new again, let them roam free in the expanses of a modern consciousness.