Riot Birds

England's Pipettes revisit the girl-group sounds of the '60s

Pipettes
Your Kisses Are Wasted on Me
Interscope/Cherrytree

In much the same way that the 1997 CD reissue of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music box set inspired a new generation of freak-folkies to embrace what writer Greil Marcus deemed "the old weird America" (and a nostalgia for a time lost even on their parents), so it appears that Sheryl Farber's meticulously curated set from 2005, One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found, will enact the same. Ubiquitous at the start of the 1960s, the giddy ephemera of girl-group sound and vision—Brill Building pop structures, three-deep girl harmonies, hair stacked to the rafters, matching polyester skirts—was tidily wiped away by the tsunamis of Beatlemania and psychedelia.

Granted, there are but few practitioners of this new old sound at this date, but with the amount of hype that the Brighton-based group the Pipettes garnered at this year's South by Southwest festival (besting both Damon Albarn's supergroup the Good, the Bad, and the Queen and Kanye West's favorite indie rockers Peter, Björn, & John for buzz), you'd think they were (wo)manning the British Invasion all by themselves. Live, the Pipettes are a septet—though from the glossy press pics and cover of their forthcoming stateside EP, Your Kisses Are Wasted on Me, you'd be hard-pressed to guess it, as the triumvirate of singers (Gwenno, Rosay, and RiotBecki) obfuscate the crack quartet of boys rollicking at play behind them. It's a setup similar to that of New York band Tralala (though with four girls singing and three boys emulating the Jesus & Mary Chain), save that the Pipettes nail the impression dead-on. Much like their countrymen do when emulating northern soul (see The Commitments), the Pipettes have studied every detail, and it shows, from their polka-dot dresses and choreographed dance moves to their actual ability to harmonize and hit their notes. In interviews, the girls cite role models as diverse as Sandy Denny and Kathleen Hanna and the Sharades, a girl group produced by the legendary Joe Meek.

On the lead track off the EP, the Pipettes chirp at their boy to "get outta my face," harmonizing, shimmying, and synchronizing their high-heel moves all the while. They gaze at one boy's tattoos and daydream of where others might be located on "Really That Bad," and behave like desperate housewives on the tacky piano line of "Guess Who Ran Off with the Milkman?" On the full-length itself, We Are Pipettes (released last summer in the U.K.), the girls delve into such lascivious topics as "Sex" and "One Night Stand," by turns sweet and curt. While being so frank no doubt raises eyebrows, it does away with the weirdly innocent veneer that made the original girl-group songs so beguiling, so repressed, yet yearning. Instead, such tongue-in-cheekiness resounds as somewhat trite after a few spins.

While tangentially not all that different from the days of the Shirelles, the Ronettes, and the Shangri-Las, when men pulled the strings from the shadows, this 21st-century updating by the Pipettes spotlights female empowerment. And why not? With the misogynistic girl-group producer Phil Spector now on trial for murder and ex-Shangri-La Mary Weiss re-emerging with her own solo debut some 40 years after getting burned by the business (managers and shady businessmen tended to claim publishing credits and royalties back in the day), it's time for the girls to reclaim the girl-group sound. Rather than sing, say, the Crystals' abuse-approving 1962 single "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)," the Pipettes might spin it instead as "He Hit Me (So I Kicked Him in the Nads and Shagged His Best Mate)."

Read a concert review and view photos of the show here!

 
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