A/V Room









The Bees make a sweet return - with a sting in their tale

Compiled by: Jack Foley

TWO years isn’t exactly an eternity, yet somehow the perception has bedded down that The Bees’ Paul Butler and Aaron Fletcher have been away for longer than was strictly necessary – as if, after releasing their lauded, Mercury Prize-nominated debut album, Sunshine Hit Me, in 2002, the Isle of Wighters mumbled, 'we are going out for a walk, we may be some time'. And duly disappeared.

Now, though, with two years of almost solid touring and three fecund weeks at Abbey Road studios behind them, Paul and Aaron are poised to unleash a second helping of hard-to-categorise, impossible-to-ignore music on us.

And while diehard fans may lament the step up to the lush production environment of Abbey Road from the fabled, assembly-kit construction shed in Paul's parents' garden (which they swore they would never contemplate leaving!), there is a reason for the change in pace.

Tired of the cold garden, Paul and Aaron have since shacked up together in a nearby house, one floor each with a studio between them.

The plan was to record their follow-up here; until, that is, Paul did a stint in the record-producer’s chair during sessions for fellow islander Drew at Abbey Road, and was exposed to the gravitational pull of the studio where a certain four-piece from Liverpool once made history.

And the motivation? “We thought, simple: we’ll be in the best studio in the world.”

The decision certainly seems worth it, however, for Free The Bees is an excellent album - probably better than the Mercury nominated debut.

Ask Aaron what impels him to write his dreamy but distinctly ambiguous lyrics and he’ll shrink into a corner, like a schoolboy who’s just been asked to recite a poem at prize-giving.

"A bit of fantasy, a bit of reality," he admits, modestly, before admittng that his hope for a song is that 'you can relate to it and then you can dream about it'.

And it's good to know that the band that once romped through A Minha Menina also have a fondness for hurtling sonic mayhem, with the gloriously funky Chicken Payback proving that life across the Solent isn’t all lazy Sunday afternoons spent flat-on-their-backs in the tall grass.

Chicken Payback has rightly been described as The Bees at their most unbridled and least disciplined, a track that almost collapses under its heavy, punctuating brass stabs, and Paul’s exhortations to 'all the animals together' and the mysterious 'Monkey!'

Another sparkling highlight on an album studded with gems is most recent single, Horsemen, which positively glows with the influence of Paul and Aaron’s classic-vinyl collection.

A Brian Wilson-homaging beauty of a chorus, and yet another verbal flourish that can’t stop your mind from wondering.

If Sunshine Hit Me marked the work of two shed-bound mates, eyeball to eyeball across their analogue equipment, then Free The Bees sees the band in their expanded form.

First as friends, and now as fellow Bees, Kris Birkin (guitar), Michael Clevett (drums), Tim Parkin (trumpet) and Warren Hampshire (hammond) had been playing with Paul and Aaron for years in any number of incarnations – from special-occasion free-for-alls, to back-to-mine jams – so, when it came to bolstering the line-up and taking their music on the road, the original duo didn’t have far to look.

Two years on, that scratch band has become a crack one. There is no evidence of the growing pains that often bedevil follow-up albums recorded with additional personnel and the dubious luxury of a multi-track recording desk.

Even in Abbey Road, the maximum the band allowed themselves was 16 tracks. As a result, The Bees' material sounds stronger than it ever has before - fresh and exciting, as well as gloriously nostalgic.

Think Beatles, Temptations, Beta Band, The Hollies - you name it, and it's there. It is the sort of long-player that Austin Powers would have in his back catalogue.

But, as the PR on website, states, quite correctly: "Bands sifting through old vinyl, recording only on analogue (think Toerag), wearing their influences on their sleeves – such groups are 10 a penny in the current climate. And to a certain extent it could be argued that everyone engaged at the musical coalface is mining the same limited material, albeit sometimes with more modern tools.

"It’s what you do with the stuff once you’ve hacked it out that counts. And this is where The Bees stand apart. They not only defy categorisation – they revel in such an exercise’s absurdities."

As for the effect on their music of recording in that famous studio, The Bees clearly succumbed to its strange magic: listen to the razor-sharp guitar, to the bass-that-thinks-it’s-the-lead, on This Is The Land or opener The Ghosts, and you’ll hear just why Paul and Aaron were lured out of their shed.

It is clear that The Bees have a higher calling, and it’s to their credit that, faced with the temptations of the relatively stress-free existence of island life, they have chosen instead to continue embracing the chaos and answering the call.

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