Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The top 10 albums of 2007: No. 2

The Pipettes
We Are the Pipettes
[International version]

It was a match made in Britain.

Solo artist and promoter Monster Bobby (Bobby Barry) paired singers and musicians from the Brighton scene, hoping to tap into clubgoers' lasting affection for '60s girl-group pop. He ended up with star attractions the Pipettes and a backing band for them, the Cassette.

After a bit of lineup shifting in the early days --- to be expected in any large group --- the Pipettes number Gwenno (Gwenno Saunders), Rosay (Rose Dougall) and RiotBecki (Becki Stephens), and the Cassette consist of Monster Bobby on guitar, Jon (Jon Falcone) on bass, Jason (Jason Adelinia) on drums and Seb (Seb Falcone) on keyboards. Together they write songs that recapture the energy, charm, innocence and moxie of groups like the Ronettes and the Crystals.

"Pull Shapes," for instance, extols the virtue of dancing. "Dance with me and we'll be alright," Gwenno sings, with Rosay and RiotBecki providing harmonies. Their enthusiastic delivery, combined with the steady arm of the Cassette, builds up a feeling of euphoria until it sounds like the string section is doing pirouettes.

"Pull Shapes," in essence, is the mission statement of We Are the Pipettes, an album filled with references to dancing. And the music is designed to get you moving. Out of 16 tracks, 13 are uptempo; three are midtempo. All are catchy and hook-laden, beaming the kind of joy that only love could touch.

Love, naturally, is the album's other major theme. Whether it's two wallflowers finding each other ("A Winter's Sky") or getting fed up enough to cut a guy loose ("Your Kisses Are Wasted on Me"), the emotion shows many of its expressions. In "Tell Me What You Want," RiotBecki scolds a boy for making eyes at her, but only because she prefers people to be upfront rather than mysterious. Her take: If you're going to stare, at least come talk to me. "You could be mine," she teases.

Oh yes, they can and do flirt. It's one of many talents in the Pipettes' arsenal. Gwenno, RiotBecki and Rosay have a chemistry that belies their short time together. The skill and ease of their vocal interplay adds sparkle to every song on We Are the Pipettes.

Strangely, the album underwent a remixing job and repackaging before being distributed internationally in 2007. Greg Wells, who specializes in slick, processed pop, did the mixing job and produced two bonus tracks for the release.

While not on the level of the Beatles' Let It Be and Let It Be ... Naked, the differences in the British version and the international version of We Are the Pipettes are numerous and give each a distinct character. Honestly, the covers tell you a lot about the music inside: The British version is proper and graceful. The international version is bigger and louder.

It's counterintuitive that a band birthed from '60s nostalgia would benefit from a modernistic recording instead of one in the tradition of Phil Spector, which is what the British version follows. Nevertheless, Wells' version has its pleasures. "Judy," a tale about befriending a rebellious girl, benefits from Wells' emphasis on bass and percussion. The horns, too, come across as more robust. "ABC" also gets a shot in the arm from his treatment.

The drawback to Wells' mix job is that Seb's keyboards are significantly muffled and many of the background flourishes are buried. You'll have a harder time hearing the crowd effect on "Pull Shapes" and Gwenno's ba-bop-bop-ba backing vocals in "Dirty Mind," though you can hear both distinctly on the British version. When the Pipettes use a lot of backing vocals in quick succession, the extra compression on the international version smooshes them together. That means if you're listening to "One Night Stand" on the British version, the vocals will have good definition, but if you're listening to the international version, it's tougher to make out the phrases.

Ultimately, however, songcraft and personality are what carry this album. When Rosay sings "I woke up with a smile / Oh, I nearly started screaming / That I love you," the exhilaration is contagious. We Are the Pipettes radiates delight regardless of the version.

Buy them both.

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