With catchy songs and studied irreverence, these three English teenagers in polka-dot dresses make the idea of girl groups seem fresh again.
Rhino's recent boxed set One Kiss Can Lead to Another revealed how much treasure could be mined from the 1960s girl-group genre. Its bounty of brilliant songs spans the gamut of teenage emotions, from defiance to desperation to self-pity, while exploring love dilemmas with plenty of subtlety, insight and ambivalence. And inevitably, each song stakes out a position relative to the era's prevailing notions of femininity, sometimes promising an escape from them, other times revealing the power they could afford. At the same time, the songs expressed the concerns of an entirely new group of consumers, and fittingly, like the best consumer goods, they seemed both manufactured and endlessly malleable in response to every unique, individual need within the mass audience for whom they were made. They seem very much the product of their time, and their pleasures come in part from the history they can convey.
So in the wake of this collection, it would perhaps seem an inauspicious time for a band to emerge such as the Pipettes, three British girls who dress in matching polka-dot dresses and sing songs full of layered harmonies against semi-orchestrated backdrops. On the band's brainy biography on their website, they admit to being "bricoleurs" amid past pop styles and claim inspiration from Phil Spector's discovery of the power of "the socioeconomic class of the 'teenager'". (They don't tell us anything about the male backup band one can spot in the band photos though, an aporia -- or is it a lacuna? -- that only serves to raise more suspicions of Svengalis lurking the shadows.) But though their look has vintage overtones, their music only vaguely evokes the golden age of girl groups, and they manage not to be trapped into going through the motions of an established style. What was palpably urgent in the earlier music, a need to transmit coded messages of empowerment, is nowhere to be heard (which can be taken as a hopeful sign of progress), though absent too is the prevailing spirit of innocent exuberance -- the sound of "the socioeconomic class of 'teenager' " first discovering itself.
That's not the Pipettes fault, of course, and they certainly aren't asking to be judged in those terms. Nostalgia dictates they'd always suffer in any comparison to the classics of the genre anyway. Their promotional material suggests they'd like to be compared to the Ramones, which, frankly, is ludicrous -- they have much more in common with Girls Aloud than the Ramones (even if you restrict yourself to the Phil Spector-produced album). Consult Nikki and the Corvettes if you want a girl group that sounds like the Ramones. A better reference point would be the loopy Él Records group Bad Dream Fancy Dress, though the Pipettes aren't nearly as erratic or eccentric.
Aside from the copious harmonies, what characterizes the Pipettes' is a blend of rinky-dink instrumentation with an almost smug confidence in their concept, which allows them to carry it over without ever provoking the listener's skepticism. They don't approach their chosen style with any debilitating reverence, so they never seem like one of those museum-ready revivalist bands whom you might grudgingly applaud for the verisimilitude of their simulation even though they never actually impressed. Even though none of them have especially strong voices, the Pipettes succeed in making the girl group seem a viable vehicle again on its own terms and not merely as a throwback gimmick. They don't merely connect the dots between familiar hooks and clichés; they manage to make it sound as though they are making the genre up as they go along, which allows their memorable melodies to seem fresh rather than inferior flashbacks of 1964.
The girl-group genre isn't especially well-suited to full-length albums, so it's not surprising the singles that preceded the album -- "You're Kisses Are Wasted on Me" and "Dirty Mind" -- are among the best tracks. Both are compelling hodgepodges, complete with handclap breakdowns, cheerleader-taunt choruses, and string-section sweetening. The former features a soaring bridge that nicely alleviates the song's cheekiness, and the latter has several tempo shifts and climaxes with satisfyingly intricate overlapping vocals. The single chosen to coincide with the album's release, "Pull Shapes" isn't quite as strong -- the lyrics seem rote and the breakdown disrupts rather than consolidates the song's basic hook. But aside from the throwaway opener, "We Are the Pipettes" (which, however, helpfully taught me how to pronounce the band's name; Pip-ettes, not Pipe-ettes), no song is an outright dud. Each has a redeeming hook or production wrinkle, some unexpected harmony or drum break or turn of lyric that rewards your attention -- the moment when someone kicks a spring-reverb amp on the otherwise sullen "A Winter's Day", the moment in "Judy" where the singer reveals her fear of having her ass kicked by the song's subject, the "I don't love you, I don't want you" refrain in "One Night Stand". And none break the three-minute barrier, which is an enormous benefit in my view. You don't have time to get too bored.
The Pipettes - Pull Shapes