People who watch The Cartoon Network regularly listen to Bis; they're the band playing the theme song to the Powerpuff Girls. With the wonderfully bratty and grrrl-ish Manda Lin singing over a not-quite-kitsch new wave pop, their sensibility fits perfectly with Bubbles, Blossom, and Buttercup. Except that after hearing the new record Plastique Nouveau, Blossom might just kick the band's collective ass.
It all started back in Scotland. Just out of high school, Manda, Steven, and John had a couple of keyboards and decided to put on a show. They released a 45 rpm. Then, all in a whirl, they were booked on England's Top of the Pops TV show, the first unsigned band ever to appear in the show's 38-year history. Madness ensued. London hipsters fell in and out of love with the band in the blink of an eye. Labels fought.
The band headed to the US for a deal, and decided not to sign with well-intentioned middle-age squares, or weasely execs with trophy wives and convertibles. They made their deal with Grand Royal, the Beastie Boys' label. If you were a teenage insta-star, wouldn't you?
Either Grand Royal was the best place in the world for Bis, or it wasn't, and this kind of depends on who you talk to, and when. At the time, Bis seemed perfectly happy to crank out records crammed with songs that mixed punk and pop and techno grooves, content to be in the most stylish magazines, suited to touring to enormous crowds in Japan as massive fame eluded them elsewhere.
That was then, before Grand Royal folded in a multi-layered deal that suffered from dot-com connections. Before new, mighty electo-publicists Green Galactic were writing of Plastique Nouveau -- "the record reveals the accomplishment of the band's ambitions, an album for an album's sake, not merely the collections of three-minute pop songs that The New Transistor Heroes and Social Dancing were." If you had thought that writing the perfect three-minute in-your-face alternapop song was perhaps one of Bis' ambitions, apparently you were wrong. Welcome to the new, nu-techno, six-minute remix world of Bis. I hope Blossom isn't listening.
This new Bis leaves me confused and sad. I long for the bratty, the adorable, the obnoxious Bis -- heck, any personality at all would be fine. Instead this record's blippy songs are your basic electronic dance mixes, with looped lyrics, synth effects and innocuous drum machine lines.
In fact, this is largely a remix record: six of the nine tracks appeared in original form on the band's last release, Return to Central, also from spinART. Master knob-turners here are Detroiters Ectomorph and ADULT, and Tommie Sunshine from Chicago.
The sound is a modern version of mid-'80s techno dance music. With Steven singing lead on "Don't Let the Rain Come Down" and a signature plinking keyboard, you'd swear Depeche Mode was in the house. Stylistic nods to Talk Talk and New Order abound. Manda's vocals have essentially disappeared, echoing wanly behind layers of synths like any hired-gun disco babe.
If you're an electronica fan, you may just love this record. People who dance all night to brand-name DJs might really dig these mixes. As a willing electronic incompetent, I find it hard to predict, but to me they sound almost as stale and sterile as New Order did the first time around.
When Bis put "The End Starts Today" on two records running, maybe they're trying to tell fans like me that they don't want to be bratty pop-punk kids anymore. Can it be that simple? Is dance music the band's true maturation, or a too-little, too-late detour from their true talents?
It depends on who you talk to. And when. The future may hold more electronic music -- and stardom -- for Bis. Or maybe they will rediscover their three-minute pop song roots and record a pile of addictive buoyant silliness. Or maybe they'll walk away from music altogether. They'll just have to stay out of Blossom's way long enough to find out.