Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The top 10 albums of 2009: No. 10

The Bird and the Bee
Ray Guns Are Not
Just the Future


Just to be sure, this is not a children's album. And yet it's uncanny how Ray Guns could fit the form, so gentle and good-natured and parental. Despite what Inara George (the Bird) twitters on "What's in the Middle" --- "If you say it all the time, a dirty word will get a cleaning" --- you won't find any cursing here. That's a bit of a change from The Bird and the Bee's debut full-length (The Bird and the Bee, 2007), which included their buzzed-about track "F*cking Boyfriend," complete with a coy little asterisk. (The song was later picked up for the "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" soundtrack.) Of course, their profanity was never profuse or controversial by rock 'n' roll standards; "tame" would be more precise. These days, however, everything comes kissed with congeniality. For instance, when George chides a scoundrely beau, she says, "You're a cad" --- even though the tongues of most would be more likely to say, "You're an asshole."

Greg Kurstin (the Bee) outfits the tale with an accordion for the rogue --- or rapscallion, by the Gallic air of the wheeze --- along with a flouncy beat and banana peel sound effect. The latter in particular aims to conjure comical high jinks. The combination strays close to cheesy, but it's endearing in the context of the album.

Plus, who could predict the poignant performance that follows? "Witch" is a Bond-theme doppelgänger about a femme fatale realizing her powers have fizzled. George's vocal performance is remarkable for the vulnerability it communicates. Here a temptress falls in love and essentially has the spell turned on her. "How could I haunt you," she sings, "keep you close / when you can see the seams, the fraying of my dress? / I am defenseless."

Just as effective, but back on the carefree side of things, is "Diamond Dave," a re-examination of her schoolgirl crush on the flashy, hedonistic lead singer of Van Halen, David Lee Roth. She concludes, "No one can hold a candle," and she dovetails that with a revelation of her continued attraction: "I still carry such a flame." The song's bleeps and bloops create a carnival atmosphere, joining prancing drums and nicely timed chimes. Strings flit like nylon cords zipping from an invisible pulley.

Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future makes a case for Kurstin being the Willy Wonka of effects. He's quick to include a whimsical keyboard flourish, whether it's the "ooo" pulse on "Ray Gun" or the hammered dulcimer on "My Love" or the accordion on "You're a Cad."

At least some of it is motivated by humor. "Phil" is a wink: The song, just 10 seconds long, is simply a drum fill, which serves as an intro to "Polite Dance Song," itself a lark. "Polite Dance Song" pokes fun at automatic rock-show requests --- "Put your hands in the air," "Give it up," "Clap your hands" and so on --- and it does this by phrasing them to be excessively gracious, becoming sillier as the requests get randier. Of course, the album as a whole is exceedingly polite, so "Polite Dance Song" is also a self-parody, in a way.

Humor and whimsy tend to be more common in children's music, not because children don't suffer, too, but because ... well, there could be a lot of reasons. The rugrats aren't out there cutting records and commiserating with their peers over spilled milk and gas pains. And parents are the ones buying the music, so it's natural that they'd want their kids to laugh rather than cry. (If your kids enjoy Mudhoney's "Touch Me I'm Sick," maybe they'll grow up to be mentally disturbed. Then again, maybe they just dig rock music.)

In the end, perhaps the Bird and the Bee's tender turn was prophetic. After all, Inara George is pregnant now.

3 comments:

Josh Langhoff said...

I'll add your pix to my library queue. In other news, during most car rides my boy of four requests "Skotoseme" by Diamanda Galas and John Paul Jones, and "Funky Broadway Melody" and "I'm Sorry" by Half Japanese. I'll let you know if he becomes mentally disturbed. I might, actually.

Jeremy Edwards said...

Nice. I'm sure he'll be requesting speed metal soon enough. Perhaps by age 7?

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