The Bird and The Bee are back with a new album. The duo of singer Inara George and multi-instrumentalist Greg Kurstin has proven over the course of four full lengths to be reliable purveyors of witty, sparkly indie pop, with clever songs often beautifully recorded courtesy of Kurstin’s studio talents – he is one of pop music’s most in-demand producers, collaborating with Adele, Sia, Beck, Paul McCartney, and more.
The band’s music has always felt playful – a quality that manifested itself most obviously in 2010’s Interpreting the Masters, Vol. 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates. A refreshingly irony-free tribute to the blue-eyed soul legends, the album was informed by a genuine love for Hall & Oates’ music. The songs were respectfully updated, given just enough of a twist to be their own while remaining revenant for the originals.
Now the duo has taken the same approach to rock icons Van Halen. Interpreting the Masters, Vol. 2: A Tribute to Van Halen successfully takes on nine of that band’s most recognizable hits and tacks on a tribute to on-again, off-again frontman David Lee Roth (logically titled “Diamond Dave”). It leans on George’s effortless voice where Van Halen mined Roth’s charisma and replaces Eddie Van Halen’s guitar pyrotechnics with Kurstin’s own prodigious piano-playing.
Van Halen are symbolic of ‘70s and ‘80s rock excess – a combination of Roth’s bottomless charisma and mythical appetite for women and drugs; Eddie’s flashy, revolutionary guitar work; Michael Anthony’s underrated bass-playing and soaring backing vocals; and Alex Van Halen’s rock-solid drumming. But they were also great songwriters and consummate performers. At their best, they were really, truly fun, personifying a a mix of escapism, swagger, and showmanship befitting their Los Angeles home base. Their songs were perfectly trashy, technical, and anthemic all at once, delivered with a knowing wink and sense of humor.
The latter two elements make their songs a perfect fit for The Bird and the Bee. George and Kurstin take traditional Van Halen elements as a jumping-off point but add their trademark breeziness, bringing massive hits down in scale but never neglecting what makes them great in the first place. Opening track “Runnin’ With The Devil” retains the original’s strut but gives it a jazzy coolness; lead single “Panama” leans heavily into modern pop, with a fizzy, funky beat and a great vocal performance from George. Her backing vocals lend the track a tropical, beachy brightness that reflects the song’s title.
“Jump” sees the original’s famous synth riff reimagined via airy, keyboard-sampled harmonies from George. The whole thing feels like a hot, neon-bathed summer night – a bit reminiscent of HAIM’s LA-isms. So is “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love,” which could plausibly pass as a take on Van Halen if Este, Danielle, and Alana decided to take cues from the Drive soundtrack. “Jamie’s Cryin’” adds electro-funk sounds straight from noted ‘80s enthusiasts’ Chromeo’s playbook, complete with bouncy, bright, pitch-bent synths. “Unchained” offers big, gated drums, outer-space synths, and an unexpected (and funny) talkdown from George, as well as a typically confident vocal performance.
It’s hard to listen to the album and not notice Kurstin’s next-level ability on piano. “Hot for Teacher” takes Eddie Van Halen’s shredworthy intro and shifts it to keys, then adds a solo that would make Bill Evans proud. A meaty, swinging backbeat melds with George’s crooner-esque vocal turn, while Beck handles the gleeful, wink-wink double-entendres from Roth that bring a laugh-out-loud funniness to the original. All-time great guitar workout “Eruption” is reimagined for piano, with Kurstin spotlighting Van Halen’s debt to classical music – fitting for a man who later named his son Wolfgang. Cover of a cover “You Really Got Me” starts with a beautiful classical intro, then moves to the land of tangerine trees and marmalade skies. Part psychedelic pop, part Lilith Fair, it’s a fun reimagining of the original Kinks song’s ‘60s roots by way of the ‘90s. When it makes a sudden, thrilling left turn to disco toward its conclusion, you almost wish it wouldn’t end.
The last track is the lone original – “Diamond Dave” was born after a 2007 Van Halen show when, according to the album’s press release, “George found herself so charmed by [Roth’s] presence [that] she approached Kurstin about writing a song for Roth.” Just piano and vocals, it’s the most traditional ballad on the album, and a pleasant change of pace from the glittery, shiny takes on Van Halen’s music that precede it.
A cynic could look at the advance writeups for Interpreting the Masters, Vol. 2, roll their eyes, and write it off wholesale – after all, it seems a bit gimmicky and nonsensical on paper. While this is by no means a world-changing release, it never tries to be. Instead, it does something rare and remarkable – it takes already fun songs and amplifies the qualities that make them so, with new, interesting twists. That this new wave take on seemingly incongruous source material manages to flourish is due to both the palpably sincere love for the original work from George and Kurstin and their ability and ingenuity. It’s a blast, well-worth a listen for fans of Van Halen and The Bird and the Bee alike, as well as newcomers to both.
The Bird and the Bee’s “Interpreting the Masters: Vol. 2” dropped today and is available now via No Expectations/Release Me Records. Stream the full album below on Spotify.
Words by Andrew Ledford