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A Band of Bees
“We’re forward wanting/Past the haunting/Bury the memory/We don’t want to go back,” Paul Butler sings on “These Are the Ghosts,” the opening cut on A Band of Bees’ latest, Free the Bees. This is a lie, as the album’s thorough pilfering of the ’60s demonstrates for its remaining 13 songs. Though Butler and Aaron Fletcher, the band’s prime movers, weren’t around for the hippie-era festival that put their native Isle of Wight on the map, it seems like as good a place as any to begin. That’s because the guiding aesthetic principle of Free the Bees is eclecticism: covering as many musical bases as seems feasible to ensure the broadest possible appeal. If that doesn’t mean honoring such fest participants as Donovan, Jethro Tull, and John Sebastian, it doesn’t rule out emulating any of their slightly cooler contemporaries. The Temptations-copping “I Love You,” for instance, could pass for gen-yoo-wine mid-’60s R&B, and “Go Karts” quickly finds itself decked out in full-on Sgt. Pepper’s regalia, with multiple Hammonds and horns fleshing out Fletcher’s McCartneyisms. Paired with the low-key groove of the preceding “Hourglass”—in which Fletcher’s lyrics, adapted from a poem by Julian Batley, curiously make both the hourglass and its sand metaphors for love—it’s the album’s best eight-or-so-minute stretch. Unfortunately, it comes rather late in the game. Up until then, there isn’t a truly great number on Free the Bees besides that pounding, Britpoppy opener. In addition to Butler and Fletcher, the band includes Kris Birkin, Michael Clevett, Warren Hampshire, and Tim Parkin, almost all of whom play a laundry list of instruments. But six heads apparently aren’t enough to keep the Bees from writing such light-show-worthy lyrics as “Teach your brother/Teach your sister” or aping the Grateful Dead on “Wash in the Rain” and “No Atmosphere.” Less interesting still are “Horsemen,” which unsuccessfully breeds a Free riff with a Zombies chorus, and “Chicken Payback,” whose good-time groove is every bit as forced as its title would suggest. There’s nothing wrong with eclecticism per se, but the buffet-o’-’60s
format in which it’s presented on Free the Bees flattens its appeal more than broadens it. The ghosts of the decade are too numerous for anyone to summon them all, and the Bees, it turns out, are a lot less spirited than they think. —Chris Hagan