April 23, 2009

Test Spin: The Bird and the Bee

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Retro modes have the ability to usher in a renaissance of the styles they reference. They allow for historical attitudinizing and therefore can be more cunning and contextual than the originals they pay homage to.
Mod style, however, has always been retro, evoking a utopian future that only existed in an invented golden age, its modernity already a thing of bygone days. Ironically, mod is an adolescent fantasy of sophisticated dress-up acted out by adults, in which adults sprucing themselves up to go out on the town can look far more fastidious than their real, shabby, work-a-day counterparts. “Ray guns,” in the title of The Bird and the Bee’s newest LP, “are not just the future” because they’re also an artifact of a specific moment of the late ’60s imaginary: Such artifacts were never going to be the future, until now — when they’re recycled knowingly as icons of the past.
“Love Letter to Japan,” the sixth track off the album and an infectious confection of jazzed-up electro-retro dance beats, is belatedly in the mode of — and an elegy for — the pop subgenre Shibuya-kei. Bubbles and blips of synth skitter and skirl as toy-xylophones tinkle while Inara George croons, “How I am longing for this love affair to start,” lamenting something impossibly over. The song’s refrain is later translated into Japanese and distorted through a robotic echo-chamber, and finally the back-up singers karaoke the refrain again as the song fades out.
“Polite Dance Song,” is another unforgettable double-take on a somewhat tired number: the clap-your-hands-and-dance track. Pretending to be targeted to wallflowers with impeccable decorum, the downbeats are mockingly harsh and herky-jerky while the slow lyrics instruct the would-be dancer on how to get “nasty” even as they’re harmonized with sentiments of pardon and apology. Other favorites are “Diamond Dave” “You’re a Cad” and “Birthday,’ which, like the whole album, offer a sugary cocktail infusion of lounge-y jazz, twee, French pop circa sexpot ’60’s Serge Gainsborough and the gamut of bossa nova.
I don’t mean to stigmatize the album with obscurantist indie cred, though; it should be noted that The Bird and the Bee been regular openers for Lily Allen and have been featured on Apple iTunes commercials as well as the Sex and the City movie. For all their retro-forward moxie, they are very much of the moment.
Perhaps the appeal of mod arises, now as then, from its fantasia of a temporal aristocratic hiatus during periods of political or economic turbulence. If so, then in this interregnum The Bird and the Bee promise an exuberant pop flight from our everyday worries, even as they tinge their songs with the fatalism that has the clarity of hindsight. They strike a faux Franco-British sensibility by way of that truly depressing lala-land of manufactured make-believe: LA.