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Pugilists at Rest

There's a new fad in British electronica, where instead of programming sampled sounds or synths, artists go digging for an obsolete piece of musical technology—like this German invention, basically a brass tube twisted around a couple of times and attached to a trio of metal cylinders with pistons on top. Then they'll get someone who knows how to blow into one end, adjusting frequencies via breath control and depressing pistons in specific combinations. They even use these old-fashioned synths that plug into amps instead of digital interfaces—synths that aren't even programmable. It's sort of like electroclash, but with much older technology. It's, like, hyper-analog.

The band Air experimented with hyper-analog, but turned it into French rock 'n' roll. The genre really took off when Nigel Godrich discovered those Zero 7 guys. They'd all worked together in a dilapidated studio that had a whole bunch of outdated equipment left over from Pink Floyd. I'll bet that dope trend is part of the reason Astralwerks signed this great new group the Bees (who had to change their name to A Band of Bees in the United States), whose philosophy of recording excludes synths in favor of antique instruments from the 1960s and earnest yet psychedelic genre-jumping. They toured with Zero 7 not too long ago.

A Band of Bees come from a really remote part of England that's not even on the mainland. It's called the Isle of Wight, and it's the southernmost point in the U.K., so they probably haven't even heard about electronica yet. The Isle of Wight is a resort area most of the year, kind of like Maine. There's a well-known nudist colony there, so a music scene hasn't really happened on the Isle since a legendarily lousy rock festival in 1970 with people like Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, who would both die soon afterward. Since the weather's clear and you're naked all the time, you don't need to start a band to get laid. If the sweetly lugubrious sound of A Band of Bees' debut, Sunshine Hit Me, is any indication, all you need is excellent pot.

Band of Bees
photo: Astralwerks
Band of Bees

You can also smell the southern hemisphere all over this album, as inhaled through the screen of England's shores. What British band that hadn't spent too much time in their garden shed would dare crawl out with a replica of Os Mutantes' (was Jorge Ben first?) tropicalian oldie "A Minha Menina," bringing skiffle back home from its 35-year holiday in Rio? While the new version is hardly a re-invention, it's remarkable that the most noticeable difference is that when they pronounce the word "menina," they sound like Tom Green-a. Even fewer bands could turn around and conjure a ska groove like "No Trophy," chugging with jerky organ riffs and retro-reverb, then bite both Kurt Weill for the waltz and the Hives for the bonus track, after concocting a Bonzo Dog timbale ballad called "Binnel Bay" that appears to be about bassist Aaron Fletcher's job manning a kiddie ride that resembled a banana. Damn that short-term memory; they must keep forgetting their genres between takes.

Few of Fletcher's imagistic lyrics connect to anything in particular, and while that might provide yet more evidence of good weed on the Isle of Wight, it's a handicap for a band with such a huge range and a fine ear for melody. But if there is a theme, it's in Fletcher's frequent references to fighting, either as a metaphor for relationships ("Use me like a punchbag . . . and I'll say I'll call again"), to depict the futility of human struggle ("You've won but don't get no trophy"), or to drop a cautionary truism ("An angry man needs attention"). All that boxing provides an eerie counterpoint to the laid-back, retro dreaminess. You have to be pretty mellow to think that daylight's most salient feature is aggression.

 
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