Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Bird and the Bee: Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future (2008)

(Blue Note)


When this came out -- or rather, when it leaked, for I was a less conscientious music lover then -- I was as deep as I've ever been in a long-running fixation on elevator music. That is, easy listening, Beautiful Music, lounge, whatever the currently in-vogue or most descriptive expression is. To say that Inara George and Greg Kurstin's sophomore album is awash in this strange subculture is to keep a needlessly safe distance; this was the music of people as obsessed as I was. George's voice is perfect for the genre, and Kurstin gets details of spacey, cushiony late '50s early '60s production as right as only a connoisseur ever could. Even the album cover is right -- looks like one of those Jackie Gleason collections on Capitol. Of course, there are more pronounced beats than Les Baxter would've probably allowed, and the Design for Dreaming aeronautics are circumvented somewhat by George's consistently earthy lyrics, but a perfect imitation would be pointless anyway.

That the songs on Ray Guns are not nearly as good as those on the Bird and the Bee's eponymous 2007 debut probably bothered some people. Whatever. I admit I lose a little patience somewhere in the third minute of "Lifespan of a Fly" and that I can only hum or sing along to three of these songs ("Polite Dance Song," "Love Letter to Japan," "Birthday"), two of which were previously released. At its best, though, this picks up somewhere in the range of early Cardigans or the Susan Anway-era Magnetic Fields, even if the compositions aren't half as sophisticated. "My Love," for instance, is perfect Bert Kaempfert by way of Supreme Beings of Leisure, with George taking on a sci-fi lilt; "Diamond Dave" brings it on like Bacharach-David backing Peggy Lee; "Ray Gun" is only maybe two shades too light to be a 1960s Bond theme.

The rest runs together, to be honest, but I skip nothing. George was my favorite part of the first record, and here it's the opposite. Behind her relative inanities, Kurstin is my hero for presenting all this sweetness and light with such a convicted and intricate conflation of homages to film music and Percy Faith and cotton-candy AM pop. Those who disdain "record collector rock" are advised to stay as far away as possible, and those who expect an army of endless hooks are advised to pick up something from Camera Obscura in lieu of this. But then again, whatever you pay for this is worth the money just for "Love Letter to Japan," a ridiculously cheery four-on-the-floor that sounds a bit like a travel agency commercial circa 1997-by-way-of-1962. And "Birthday" and "Polite Dance Song," as you probably already know, are two of the wittiest and most instantly appealing pop tunes of recent vintage. I think I'm justified in my irrational affection here.

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