THE BEES: FREE THE BEES (2004)
1) These Are The Ghosts; 2) Wash In The Rain; 3) No Atmosphere; 4) Horsemen; 5) Chicken Payback; 6) The Russian; 7) I Love You; 8) The Start; 9) Hourglass; 10) Go Karts; 11) One Glass Of Water; 12) This Is The Land.
«Sophomore slump» usually refers to the artist's second album being much less impressive than the first, but the expression can, in fact, apply to different situations. Sometimes your second album is a failure because the first one is where you have expressed your long-nourished ideas to the max, and now you need more time to breed and nurture new ones than the recording business has allocated for you. Sometimes you just need to step back, take a long breath, regroup your forces, and whammo, the «sophomore slump» is overcome, and your third record is a new masterpiece with a completely different spirit, and you become the speaker for your generation and...
...anyway, I'm not talking about the Bees here. Free The Bees is not really a proper «sophomore slump». It simply gives you a vector — and that vector points downwards, at an angle that may be closer to 80° than it is to 10°, yet the little arrow is definitely not directed towards the sky, but fairly distinctly towards the ground. It is still a very nice little record, but it is fairly less diverse and less original than Sunshine Hit Me, and with its release, The Bees solidify their reputation as that of a well-meaning, intelligent, moderately talented retro-oriented band... like so many others. Will there be anyone still wanting to «Free The Bees» ten years from now (2011)?
The entire record sort of emulates the generic British pop-rock sound (teetering towards the harder edge of the platform), and, occasionally, the generic American roots-rock sound of the late 1960s. Rough, but jangly guitar riffs; snowy electric organ backgrounds; catchy, melodic backing vocals; country waltz and music hall influences — many of these songs could easily mingle with any disc of the Nuggets II boxset and come out with steady B+ tags. Repeated listens faithfully endear the melodies and, eventually, make them memorable and laudable. The only question is, what for?
In order to suck up even more authenticity, the band recorded the album at Abbey Road Studios. And don't worry, they do sound authentic. 'These Are The Ghosts' greets you with Byrdsey jangle, CSN-style vocal harmonies, and a dreamy/stoned peacenik attitude that might make you want to locate your old torn jeans and go out dancing in the streets. Then the mist clears, and, starting with 'Wash In The Rain', it's basically one upbeat pop-rocker after another, with moderately funny lyrics, moderately amicable hooks, and occasional kick-ass passages that take proper care to kick that ass softly enough, so that you don't confuse them with punks or anything ('No Atmosphere'). The problem is, in terms of sheer power, they do not even begin to compete with the likes of the Action, let alone the Kinks or the Who.
Oddest stuff is placed in the middle of the album. 'Chicken Payback' supposedly emulates the bubble-gum-R'n'B approach of the decade, with juvenile lyrics, vocals, and atmosphere — it usually bears the brunt of all the panning, but, upon first listen, I was actually delighted to hear it after a string of samey medio-pop-rockers (at least one has to admit that emulating that kind of style in 2004 may be an even trickier thing than emulating more serious types of sounds). And the instrumental 'The Russian' is the only trace of the band's open-mindedness on Sunshine, a very hard to define composition, sort of a jerky pop/R'n'B hybrid — in the late 1960s, of all people I know only somebody like Al Kooper might have envisaged that kind of sound, but he didn't.
Then it's back to basics, including the annoyingly-pretentiously titled 'I Love You' (quite a soulful ballad in its own right, but hardly a genuine tear-jerker), at least two waltzing Matildas, and some more folk-rock guitar on the intersection of the Byrds and the Beatles circa Rubber Soul.
As much as I should looooove this stuff, I just don't. If these guys have genius, they are dissipating it on pointless emulation; if this is just perfect craftsmanship, it is even more pointless. I enjoyed the album every single time I heard it — and now I just don't want to hear it ever again. I don't even know which way my thumbs are pointing. Too many other questions to be settled before I can pay them any attention.
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