For those cynical enough to try to map out which era of 20th-century music indie rock will pillage next, The Pipettes are an easy mark. Now that the millennial “garage rock” cohort of bands has successfully put a shiny new coat of marketing on the proto-punk of the ’70s, we can yawningly await the systematic recycling of the ’60s “girl-group,” sound, right?
This sort of back seat driving on the part of critics is symptomatic, not of Borg-like trans-temporal assimilation by the monolith that is “indie rock” of all previous styles of pop, but rather of the oft-stated fact that rock music is built on plagiarism.
If The Pipettes are any indication, today’s plagiarists are clever and subversive enough to make things interesting again.
Hailing from Brighton, England, this trio made their stateside debut singing backup on the criminally overlooked (across the pond, anyway) “Give Blood” album from The Brakes. Their hook and look made them easy for bloggers and tastemakers to write about. After a series of 45s, they assembled “We Are The Pipettes,” which draws heavily from rerecorded versions of previously released tracks.
The title track kicks off the album with a statement of purpose and cuttingly concise manifesto, rhyming the declaratory title with “If you haven’t noticed yet/ We’re the prettiest girls you’ve ever met.” However, these “pretty girls” are less likely to be serving up giant milkshakes on roller skates than to find you “crying in your bed” hoping that they “haven’t finished with you yet” while demanding, “Make us a meal.”
That’s the conceit of the album and perhaps the band – using girl-group sounds and three-part harmony to cheerfully twist the sentiments of the sound’s originators. While the vast scope of ’60s girl-group pop contained strains of darkness, the overall flavor was one of confusion about the inequality of the genders and resignation to a life of weeping over “bad boys” who don’t cut their hair and die in various kinds of vehicular accidents. The Pipettes would just as soon chew “the leader of the pack” up and spit him out, moving on to their next prey.
Another theme of ’60s girl-pop the Pipettes invert particularly well is that of the female narrator lamenting that her poor performance as a girlfriend drove her man away. In “Why Did You Stay,” the girls find themselves wondering what’s wrong with the boy who refuses to get the message he’s around mostly for amusement. While in the ’60s the line “I was so cruel” would have been intoned with pouty regret, The Pipettes deliver it with bored existential detachment.
All told, the clever and well conceived idea of the band might have hit harder had things on the musical level come together better. The production and instrumentation lacks the bombast and enormity these songs need to drive the point home. The musicianship is fine, but the drums should be cavernous, not bright and sharp, and the horns should be big and beefy, not like a guy in the corner with a trumpet.
However, none of this hurts the fun of the record enough not to recommend it. One would just hope The Pipettes go on to record another album with a budget big enough to create the wall of sound their ideas so deserve.