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The Pipettes - We are the Pipettes

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Artist: The Pipettes

Album: We are the Pipettes

Label: Memphis Industries

Review date: Sep. 8, 2006

A section of the Pipettes' website entitled "About the Pipettes" helpfully explains not only where they're coming from, but where they hope their critics will come from:

"Let us write the histories of pop music (the plural has a certain importance). A history at once oral/aural but not linear or progressive. A history that snakes and twists and turns back on itself, a history of ruptures and wrong-turnings. But let us not start with The Beatles...

"There is a traditional historiography of popular music which in some way or another always seems to come back to the Beatles; and Lonnie Donegan who begat The Beatles, and Elvis who begat Lonnie Donegan, John Lee Hooker who begat Elvis and Robert Johnson who begat John Lee Hooker etc etc. But that is not what we are interested in here."

The Pipettes are right. Histories of popular music do have a way of coming back to the Beatles, and of propagating ideas the Beatles helped popularize (whether they meant to or not) – for example, that pop stars should play their own instruments, or write their own songs, or emphasize artistry or technical competency above showmanship. According to the Pipettes, such popular music histories leave out entire worlds of music, from disco to Broadway to R&B.

All this tells us, though, is that the Pipettes possess and are able to articulate a view of popular music that's been articulated many times, in, for example, the endless "rockism" debates at the I Love Music web board in the early '00s. Disco, Broadway and R&B musicians and all sorts of other performers have been rejecting rockist values for decades, so it isn't as if the Pipettes' rejection of Beatle-centric views of pop history automatically makes them interesting or even says much about them.

Which brings us to their music. The Pipettes – three English female singers, backed by four male musicians called the Cassettes – play girl-group pop, complete with multi-part harmonies, synchonized dances and matching polka-dotted dresses. They're extremely good at it. Their arrangements are especially noteworthy – "Dirty Mind," for example, is not only fantastically catchy but is at least as complex and layered as you'd expect from a band that says they love Phil Spector and Joe Meek. And the Pipettes' best song, "Pull Shapes," is carried as much by its weird, busy string arrangement as it is by its hook and punkish shouting.

Speaking of that punkish shouting, it's one of a surprisingly small number of elements of the album that clearly doesn't come directly from the teen-pop of the '60s. True, the title track has some really punkish gang-vocal shouting and some fuzz bass, and "Pull Shapes" references hip-hop and even has a bit of kitschy DJ scratching.

And true, the Pipettes mostly write from the perspective of twentysomethings, not teens – these are teen-pop songs about having one-night stands and staying out until dancing until two in the morning. (Maybe some junior high kids do those things, but I sure didn't.)

Even when the Pipettes deal with more adult topics, though, their lyrics remain as simple and cutesy as those of teen-pop. Despite having the sort of awkwardly forthright title a pre-teen might titter at, "Sex" is anything but direct in discussing the act itself. In "ABC," letters and numbers are repeatedly used as a metaphor for book smarts – the boy doesn't know what the girl wants; he only knows "ABC, 123, XYZ." In "I Love You," the Pipettes follow "'Til the day I die" with "There will never be a time / When we have to say goodbye." On the otherwise excellent "Your Kisses are Wasted on Me," the Pipettes' reliance on lyrical tropes becomes absurd – if the dude's such a drag, why are you letting him kiss you? Like most '60s teen-pop songs, the Pipettes' songs are about real feelings, but they're presented in a cartoonishly silly way.

It may seem foolhardy to pick through a teen-pop album for cliches – duh, it's pop. As the Pipettes themselves say, "I just wanna move / I don't care what the song's about." My main point of contention here, though, is not really with the cliches themselves, but with the fact that both the lyrics and the music stick so closely to the '60s pop playbook.

This goes back to what the Pipettes wrote about on their website. It's not revolutionary, or even particularly interesting, to make music that rejects a Beatles-centric view of popular music history. Innumerable musicians have already done that – MCs, chart-pop singers, R&B musicians, techno DJs, and so on.

What is interesting about the Pipettes is that they're creating incredibly catchy, well-made pop music. That's easily the most important message of this review. But their music could be something more. '60s teen-pop is a flexible enough genre that it's pretty easy to imagine a record that's based on the music of Spector, Meek, and so on, but that acknowledges more often that a lot of music has happened since the '60s. It's exciting to think about the possibility of a skillfully-made teen-pop record that really tweaks our expectations of what teen-pop lyrics should be like, or that boldly incorporates elements of hip hop, or noise, or electronic music, or punk rock, or something else. It's true that the Pipettes do some of these things occasionally, but they could be doing them a lot more. (The wonderful new foul-mouthed ballad "Feminist Complaints" definitely has a different lyrical approach, but that song isn't on We are the Pipettes, unfortunately.)

Perhaps I'm missing the point entirely – maybe in hoping for the Pipettes to adopt a more current-sounding approach, I'm embracing the innovation-conscious, forward-looking rockist values the Pipettes want to reject. But to me, it often sounds like the Pipettes aren't writing histories of pop music so much as they're recalling them.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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