JOPLIN, Mo. —
I really struggled with writing this review of Me Like Bees' "The Ides," the band's first full-length album.
I worried that I would be too gushing and effervescent, because I like this album a lot, and because this is a local band poised, I think, to break big. With so much complimentary praise, I worried that this review might not actually help anyone make an objective decision or give anyone any useful information about why it's so good.
Then I remembered the name of my column. There it is, at the top of the printed edition of this column: "Geeked Out."
One of the more modern definitions of a geek is a person who likes what they like passionately and without shame or fear of any repercussions. If there's any place I could gush about "The Ides," it's here.
And if there was any album deserving of the gushing, it's "The Ides." So I'm going to gush big-time about this album. It's an outstanding piece of work that has quickly notched up a high play count in my iTunes.
"The Ides" is so good that it transcends any desire for us to see a local act make it big, just because they are from Joplin. This is a big-time album. It's one of the strongest quality albums I've heard all year, and that includes critical successes such as Vampire Weekend's "Modern Vampires of the City," Queens of the Stone Age's "...Like Clockwork" and alt-J's "An Awesome Wave."
Let the gushing commence. You've been warned.
Reason for anticipation
Last week's issue of Enjoy dived into how the album was created. Produced by Loveway Records, it is the fruit of "Naked Trees," a song that the band wrote about the May 22, 2011, Joplin tornado.
That song really got to me and mine on a personal level. It was upbeat yet heartbreaking, calming yet honest. Instead of relying on beatitudes and country-ballad sentiments, it reminded listeners that it was OK to be a little bit off-kilter about the state of things.
It also featured some brilliant lyrics. Comparisons to the big, bad wolf result in a chorus that's actually French, not sing-song baby talk.
As The Lovely Paula Hadsall said, the lyrics admitted things kinda sucked, and that made the song much more meaningful and relatable. "It's like they know what actually happened," she said.
Because that song was so good, I was excited to hear back then that the process of writing it put the band into a songwriting mode. I was excited to hear a whole album of songs that came from the same place.
When I finally got to listen to "The Ides," it didn't disappoint. The same spirit, songwriting and sagacity in "Naked Trees" can be found in each song.
Inspired by Modest Mouse and Arcade Fire, the band has an alt-rock sound infused with just a smidge of rockabilly. Comprised of singer Luke Sheafer, guitarist Pete Burton, bassist Nick Bynum and drummer Timothy Cote, the band plays a close-to-perfect combination of carefully crafted chords and flailing, raw edges.
One of the last things I notice about music stands out in abundance on the album: the lyrics. Clever and savvy, Sheafer sings about enduring tough times and reconciliation with our not-so-admirable parts of ourselves.
Sheafer poured his heart out in this album, and it shows in songs such as "Joseph Jones," where he harbors guilt for how he treats a homeless person, or "Fifteenth Day," where there is a strong sense of regret for how something personal played out.
And the lyrics are fantastically written. Like I said, I listen to music before lyrics, and it takes me a while to catch on to a song's words. But I can't miss turns of phrase like this:
- "Might be my best years have bested me," from "The Ides."
- "Because you can't keep the wolves out with a pile of sticks, and you can't build a house with a pile of broken bricks," from "Brand New Fall."
- "Blinking little colon you're a metronome that separates digits, and you're doing me no favors, thanks a lot, I can count on my own," from "Kids in the Kitchen."
- "I say, 'Joe, does it warm you up when I wrap your arms with blanket statements?'", from "Joseph Jones."
The lyrics are filled with plenty of cultural and literary references, perfect metaphors and blunt honesty. And because the lyrics feature some common themes, "The Ides" is just a few redundant chords short of being a prog-style concept album.
What gets me most about "The Ides" and the Bees are the perfect marriage of music and words. All of the band members are on top of their game on this album:
- Sheafer sings like Isaac Brock with more restraint. With a grasp of the emotion behind a moment, he knows when to stay on key and when to slide with abandon, when to linger on a syllable and when to spit out rapid-fire words.
- Cote, a true percussionist, adds so much to the music with bells in the background of some songs. But while the bells are a nice touch that adds upper register, he gives each song a true heartbeat with a solid groove. As a drummer, I love how he uses toms in place of hi-hats in some songs. (On a personal note: You're right, Tim. I cannot un-hear that clapping sound now.)
- Burton slides in and out of each song with aplomb on guitar. From standard off-beat reggae hits to soaring slide solos, he adds amazing versatility and dynamic chords. Each song sounds so full.
- Bynum, the newest member of the band, sounds like he's been there the whole time. It's like he's not doing the traditional job of a bass player, but playing what the music calls for. His lines are melodic and grounding all at once, and it's awesome.
There are so many great moments in "The Ides." Music listeners will hear the Modest Mouse influences, but the album embraces that band's better moments and eschews its rougher, dissonant deviations and excessive ambient moments. "The Ides" is a lot more like "Ocean Breathes Salty" than "Dance Hall."
But other moments remind me what I like about the Decemberists, Franz Ferdinand and Arcade Fire. The band knows how to capture the spirit of an anthem to make a meaningful, emotional, enervating song.
The album is also brilliantly engineered. Recorded at Studio 2100 in Springfield, each song features intricately layered touches, whether it's a lyric sung from the back of the studio or an extra line of instrumentation.
My only gripe is with the song that started it all. "The Ides" features a newly recorded version of "Naked Trees," and its production makes it fit with the rest of the album. The song still has its heart, but the first version recorded in 2011 sounded more like a unified chorus.
But that's a small gripe in the face of so much win. "The Ides" is a masterpiece in so many ways.
Band members are preparing to write a second full-length album Ñ if they do things the same way, with the same attention to detail and incubation time, it will be just as classic.
Must listens: "The Ides," "Joseph Jones," "Brand New Fall," "Pneumonia."