Lost in translation


The concept of the pre-fab girl group has a sketchy past. Phil Spector's stable of talent (The Ronettes, The Crystals, Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans) all but represented the '60s pop sound, while the Spice Girls, 30 years later, all but destroyed the girl group as a respectable vehicle for musical expression. Spector's girls and the Spice Girls represent two ends of the same spectrum, but more importantly they are essentially the alpha and omega of the girl group sub-genre. Spector started it; the Spice Girls essentially killed it. (TLC and En Vogue are notable latter-day girl groups that were both style and substance, rather than only the former.)

When The Pipettes popped onto the scene in 2006, it was easy to dismiss them, sound unheard, as one of another kitschy, forced musical exercises: the three girls (Rosay, Gwenno, Riot Becki) all wore polka dot dresses, they espoused to follow the lead of Spector's groups of yore, and they were a band built by a want-to-be savvy promoter and producer (Monster Bobby). Yet somehow it worked. The boom, chk-chk, boom backbeats, the surfing guitars, the three-part harmony, and the lyrical obsession with boys and dancing hearkened back to those soda store pop days in the early '60s, while the production created the all-important, essential Wall of Sound. At the same, the Pipettes' demands for sex with no strings, found on numerous tracks, imbued the album with a decidedly now feel. As I wrote in my original review of We Are The Pipettes, The Pipettes tranformed the girl group into the grrrl group.

The Pipettes' delightfully retro sound, mixed with decidedly modern lyrics, was a recipe for perfect pop confection. At least, it was on the original, British release. When the announcement came that We Are The Pipettes was finally to debut in the US in late 2007, the band promised a remixed, better produced album. The reality was that the American version of the album was grossly overproduced, stripping away the Wall of Sound, the '60s pop standards, the harmonizing, and replacing them with a more backing-band-heavy approach that accentuated one singer rather than all three or, worse, the backing band, and reduced Spector-esque pop gold to generic, retro-chic indie pop lead.

Take, for example, the opening to "One Night Stand." On the original UK release, the track begins with a lone voice lamenting that last night's conquest didn't get the hint, followed by some classic oh-la-la-las:

On the American release, the track begins the same way, except now the oh-la-la-las are drowned out by an increase in the backing music levels:

On the UK release, "One Night Stand" is a microcosm of how The Pipettes subvert expectation. When you hear those oh-la-la-las kick in, you're expecting some sugary sweet, sexually repressed lament of a love missed or, worse, lost. Instead, you get an annoyed blast from a woman who just wants a one-and-done dude out of her bed, the quicker the better. The remixed track takes some of this away by covering up the '60s pop qualities of the track with dissonant crashes of electronic instruments. Worse, the instrumentation takes a more prominent place on the track at the expense of the vocals. That can't happen on an album predicated on the singing abilities of the girls at the center of the girl group. What was at one time an excellent song worthy of dancing to and singing along with is rendered a mash of noise and overproduction.

A similar problem hurts "Pull Shapes," one of the catchiest, best tracks on We Are The Pipettes. On the first release, the sweeping, breathless love letter to dancing is punctuated by a chorus of "Clap your hands if you want some more!" rising above the sound of a crowd and, of course, hand claps:

The remixed "Pull Shapes," well, that's another story all together:

"Pull Shapes," as its found on the American version of We Are The Pipettes, is a textbook case of how poor production can kill an excellent track. The hand claps are gone, replaced by drums. The crowd noise is muted thanks to dissonant electronics. Neither of these problems exist on the original mix of "Pull Shapes," and it's hard to understand why it was remixed so poorly and, indeed, why it needed remixing at all.

That question is one of two major issues with the American release of We Are The Pipettes. The other is that most, if not all, of the album wasn't simply remixed as much as it was re-recorded and mixed differently. While not unheard of, this approach is certainly peculiar. The album got major buzz online in its original form and cultivated a fairly fervent fan base. Something about it captured the attention of listeners. Perhaps it was the kitsch appeal. Or maybe it was the naughty play off of the innocent sound of '60s pop. Then there was the excitement of a girl group that was worthy of attention because they sounded as good, if not better, than they looked. Whatever the case, the album had bucketloads of substance.

The buckets are empty on the American release. The new mix and/or recording of We Are The Pipettes foolishly tears down the Wall of Sound. As a result, The Pipettes are repositioned away from wonderfully subversive retro kitsch party starters and towards homogeneous overproduced irrelevance.