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A Band of Bees and Dungen Mine The Good Old Days A Little Too Perfectly

WONDER IF THAT’S ITCHYCOO PARK: A Band Of Bees shows its retro ‘60s stripes on the new Free The Bees.

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 11/2/2005

How retro is too retro? For some pop music lovers, any retro is too much—they want the future and they want it now, tomorrow, and every day after, at least theoretically. This is an understandable desire. The eternal “now” may not be pop’s only gift to its partisans, but it’s a major one. And given that no other medium mutates faster or spawns more varied offspring, it can be a full-time job just keeping up. But the opposite desire—to wallow in what has already been—can be just as much of a full-time job. Thanks first to the CD boom’s endless appetite for vault sweeping and now the friendly one-upmanship of MP3 blogging, there’s more old stuff available than ever.

Conceiving the pop past of those reissues as a different kind of present is the project of many hyped-to-the-gills rock bands from the last few years. The Hold Steady harks back to early Bruce Springsteen. The Fiery Furnaces reimagine Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans through the lens of Bob Dylan and the Band’s Basement Tapes. And the Strokes sure do love the Cars. But none goes as far as Sweden’s Dungen and England’s A Band of Bees. Both bands’ most recent albums—Dungen’s Ta Det Lungt (Subliminal/Kemado) and Stadsvandringar (Astralwerks) and the latter’s Free the Bees (Astralwerks)—view their source materials as both a finish line and a launching pad.

Once upon a time, bands that loved English rock from the ’60s might play in the same style, but the results would differ from the originals—different equipment, different sensibilities, and especially different recording techniques made sure of that. But a funny thing happened on the way to the cover-band circuit. The changes wrought to record-making in the mid-’90s as a result of hard-disk editing and its digital offspring have affected rock as much as hip-hop or dance music—maybe more. You don’t have to spend a million dollars to sound like a million dollars anymore; if “lo-fi” was once a necessity for bedroom bands, it’s purely an aesthetic option now. Just as importantly, it’s never been easier to re-create the precise sounds of other records—via sampling, obviously, but also with bit of fancy mousework in front of a computer screen.

Which isn’t to say that either Dungen or A Band of Bees’ is purely the product of postproduction. But it’s hard not to hear them in that context. The Bees—multi-instrumentalists Paul Butler and Aaron Fletcher from the Isle of Wight—recorded Free the Bees at London’s Abbey Road Studio. Obviously most famous for the Beatles’ recordings, it’s also the place where Pink Floyd tracked Dark Side of the Moon and Queen made A Night at the Opera—state-of-the-art recordings, in their time. But the location of Free the Bees’ making is a mere feather in the band’s cap—with the right twiddling, it could have gotten its thick, airy sonic crunch from anywhere.

At first it’s easy to hear Free the Bees as a straight-up mod-revival album—think circa-’66 the Who, the Small Faces, the Creation. But the Bees dig a bit deeper than that—when they get funky on “The Russian,” they cop not James Brown licks but those of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti—and throw in a David Axelrod-esque ’60s/’70s-cusp action-flick orchestral bridge. Right after that comes a lousy slow crawl called “I Love You,” which wouldn’t be out of place as filler on an early Rascals album. Say whatever else you want about ’em, but the Bees are nothing if not versatile. What’s more, they write good songs in their primary vein: “This Is the Land,” from its hyperactive tambourine to its hovering harmony vocal, would have buoyed The Who Sell Out.

Dungen sets its Wayback Machine a bit ahead of the Bees’ destination. Play last year’s Ta Det Lungt (translation: “take it easy”) for the first time, and it sounds so much like 1971 that you have to check to see whether or not it’s a reissue. Ta Det Lungt sounds as if Dungen simply had no idea that punk, hip-hop, house, and pretty much every other musical development of the past 30 years even existed. Finding out that Dungen is essentially mid-20s Swede Gustav Ejstes, alone in the studio—an arrangement so standard in the post-Prince era it’s nearly a cliché—was genuinely shocking. From a rhythm section so sweaty you could practically hear the bassist and drummer cuing each other, to the unabashed, go-for-broke singing, bands simply don’t play together like this much anymore—much less when they consist of one person.

2002’s Stadsvandringar, which Astralwerks has just given its inaugural U.S. issue, was a group effort, featuring the playing of the quartet Ejstes tours with. Paradoxically, it doesn’t work up anywhere near the same groove as Ta Det Lungt. Instead, Stadsvandringar is an airy folk-rock album, from its Byrdsy title cut on down. “Stadsvandringar” is so harmony-intensive and yet effortless-sounding that it would probably stick inside your cranium even if the refrain weren’t just an endless reiteration of the syllable lie. And the agreeably snarling organ and wah-wah guitar groove of “Vem Vktar Lejonen?” could be the long-forgotten theme for an American International Pictures biker flick set in Stockholm. If it’s unusual for a band album to work primarily as a rehearsal for a one-man-show, it’s just as odd to hear musicians mine the past this effectively without the present leaking in at all.

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