Greg Kurstin is the first Californian I’ve met who has gotten a ticket for texting while behind the wheel. Dude doesn’t even try to deny that he’s guilty, he explains in his home studio in the Franklin Hills. A motorcycle cop pulled up beside him on Sunset and caught him in the act.
Yet if there’s anybody in Los Angeles with a good excuse for committing this newly classified crime, it’s Kurstin. After all, the well-connected producer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist has built a career around his ability to multitask, juggling freelance jobs for the likes of Britney Spears and Lily Allen with his work alongside singer (and fellow juggler) Inara George in their thoroughly delightful electro-pop duo, the Bird and the Bee. (Before all that, he used to play in Geggy Tah. Remember Geggy Tah?)
Last week, Blue Note released the Bird and the Bee’s sophomore full-length, Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future, a swinging, spacey set of catchy ’60s-influenced tunes about meteors, Japan, witches and the life span of a fly. As with the outfit’s self-titled 2007 debut, nearly all of Ray Guns was recorded at Kurstin’s tidy home studio, in what George calls “short little bursts” interspersed between her bandmate’s other gigs. A typical session for the pair lasts about three hours, they say, which often includes an hour or so of goofing around before things get serious. (Not that things ever get too serious: One of Ray Guns’ highlights is “Polite Dance Song,” a tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of the audience-participation jam: “Would you please clap your hands?” George sings sweetly. “Now get up on your feet/I beg of you to get up and dance/It’s such a crazy kick-ass beat.”)
Though it was born of necessity, the short-little-burst approach definitely works to the Bird and the Bee’s advantage; it’s probably a big part of why their music sounds so fresh, so unencumbered by a sense of routine or obligation. Each of their songs has a sparkly new-toy feel, as though neither member had handled the melody or the rhythm long enough to become bored by it. And yet the music isn’t shallow or short-lived — far from it, in fact. Listen repeatedly to a cut like “I’m a Broken Heart,” from the debut, or Ray Guns’ “Diamond Dave,” and you’re sure to discover new harmonic tricks or clever turns of phrase each time through.
“There’s a clarity to Greg’s playing but also a complexity,” says Alex Lilly, who, in addition to fronting L.A.’s Obi Best, plays keyboards and sings backup in the expanded B&B live band. Lilly admires Kurstin’s use of the chromatic mediant, a technique she simplifies for the theory-ignorant among us as “breaking free of a key and doing things that are unexpected.” (“That’s not the definition of it,” she emphasizes. “I’m just explaining what it sounds like.”)
Both George and Kurstin say that one of their principal musical goals is hinting at the darkness that often lies beneath light; they point to the Beach Boys and the Carpenters as prime examples of artists whose material managed to convincingly house melancholy inside a framework of exuberance. Hall & Oates is another act they’re into for the same reason, so much so that they’re currently at work on a covers album — “our version of a Hall & Oates greatest hits,” as Kurstin puts it. Don’t expect a half-assed indie goof, either: “Daryl Hall totally has his own style — it’s like hypersoul,” George says. “It’s really hard to do!”
The Bird and the Bee fared reasonably well in what we’re still referring to as the record industry; according to Nielsen SoundScan, the album sold 45,000 copies, which obviously convinced Blue Note to foot the bill for another outing. CD sales aren’t necessarily where the B&B bread is buttered, though: Licensing songs for use on TV and in movies paid more bills last time — you might’ve heard them on Grey’s Anatomy or the Sex and the City movie soundtrack — and that’s likely to be the case with Ray Guns as well, due at least a little bit to George’s and Kurstin’s lukewarm feelings regarding the touring life. (Both are married, and Kurstin and his wife have a baby on the way.) In George’s view, an appealing tour lasts about “seven days, door-to-door,” she says with a laugh — long enough to get her fill of hanging out in bars, short enough for her and Kurstin to get back to all that they left cooking at home.