True pop stars live and die by the sword of public opinion. The empty-eyed adoration of millions of fickle fans is an unnatural burden for any human to bear; it is a love that can only end in ruin, either the ruin of a career (i.e., most one-hit wonders) or the ruin of a human being (i.e., Michael Jackson). Pop satisfies the consumer, despite what it often lacks in substance, because encoded into the emptiness of its material is a faith in the promise of an idea: the phenomenon of celebrity. Riches, fame, magazine covers, the high life. In seeking a cultural and economic apotheosis, pop uses art’s raw materials like a john uses a whore: as a tool, as the means to an end.
The Bird and The Bee, a California-based duo of singer Inara George and producer Greg Kurstin, create their music in an odd self-created parallel universe where pop’s cultural and economic apotheosis is distant and dreamily irrelevant. They consider the raw materials of art something to be caressed and treasured, not something to be handled roughly. When George sings “I want a pretty little life” on their second LP’s title track “Ray Gun,” she expresses a desire for an art that represents a modest and idealized world instead of signifying a tumultuous and over-sexualized one. The duo inhabit an environment where dancing is a mere accessory to something else that happens mainly between the ears; this attitude produced such curiosities as “Polite Dance Song.” They write songs about love, too, but it’s a love mediated by media.
Their newest album, Interpreting The Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates, could be considered the spiritual successor to Ray Guns Are Not Just The Future’s “Diamond Dave,” a fawning ode to a certain Mr. Lee Roth. It’s sincere, sure, but it’s at arm’s length, smiling shyly and awkwardly, not letting its guard down. Interpreting The Masters is a straight-up covers album, one that’s as dutifully reverent as its title suggests. Given the duo’s well-documented and unapologetic fondness for the remnants of cultural past, it isn’t very surprising that they would get serious about revisiting the work of a dated but lovable pair of hitmakers like Hall and Oates. What’s surprising about this album, and what defines it, is its sense of restraint.
Unlike the freewheeling reharmonizations of 2007’s “Carol of the Bells” single or the drastically dialed-down cover of The Bee Gees’ “How Deep is Your Love” on the Please Clap Your Hands EP, the interpretations that inhabit this Hall & Oates tribute leave Kurstin and George’s strengths of stylistic range and flexibility curiously untouched. The original song structures remain intact; the guitar and saxophone solos have been faithfully transcribed and replayed on weird, awesome synthesizers; the grooves, when not near-photocopies of the originals, are earnest approximations.
The original “Sarah Smile” is about as subtle as John Oates’ bushy 80s ‘stache, but the newer one obscures the groove under slippery and echoey synths. George is admirably patient with the melody in her vocal performance, but her gut isn’t in it. The 1973 “She’s Gone” migrated between whispered rationalizations and stark, believable desperation, but this 2010 retread features synths that merely twinkle and a gentle, nodding groove that seems to be a stranger to the pain of loss. I find it a little strange to hear the raw desperate moans of the original “She’s Gone” finding their echoes here with George’s sweet, weightless voice and its serene coos (“what went wroooong…”). She’s detached to a fault, not even taking basic liberties with the lyrics by using that gender-switching trick jazz singers use when they’re trying to usurp ownership of a song that they’ve torn from its original context. George isn’t concerned with making these songs her own; the question of context here is one that goes unanswered.
As writers, Kurstin and George usually leave nothing to be desired, but I wager that they could never have written songs like “She’s Gone,” “Sarah Smile,” or “Kiss On My List.” These songs don’t hint coyly at pop; in their own era, they defined it. Empty enough for fickle fans to read their lives into, and empty enough for these same fans to abandon once fashions change. It seems to me that George knows herself and her tastes too well to long for a conventional sort of pop music fame, so when she sings, public opinion is pretty far from her thoughts; she isn’t wielding a sword. A dagger, maybe. She sounds great, but she isn’t willing to hurt anybody. She wants a pretty little life.
Although production technique as accomplished as this can sometimes highlight a spiritual void that longs to be filled, songs like “Private Eye” and “I Can’t Go For That” lose nothing in translation from the simplistic grit of yesteryear to an up-to-date, lush proto-futurism; instead, they benefit from Kurstin’s Steely Dan-ish fondness for jazz harmony and sonic crispness. The duo has never abandoned the cool reserve of music nerds, but their sound on this tribute has a different sort of ease and confidence; they’ve learned something from studying their pop music history books. “I Heard It On The Radio,” the album’s only original composition, glitters with simple optimism. It’s all talk about memories of summer days, of first dates, of hearing a song on the radio and listening to it loud and over and over again. No deconstruction, no misdirection, no coy retreats into subtlety. Simple pleasures, no irony.