Album of the Week, April 26: Two Great Discs That Buzz with Pop Power

HummingbirdsloveBUZZVoBLetItBeeThe late 1980s was a time of musical transition. Pop radio saw the waning days of hair metal as power ballads, proto divas, and smooth urban dance tracks began their decade-long chart dominance. Alternative rock — then usually called college rock — was on the ascendant, with  acts like R.E.M. and U2 making successful transitions to major stardom as a thriving scene hinted at the major market segment that would arise in the 90s after the Grunge explosion.

As always, many wonderful bands and brilliant albums got lost in the shuffle. Two standouts that blended beautiful harmonies, smart music, and sharp lyrics were Voice of the Beehive with Let It Bee and the Hummingbirds with loveBUZZ. Let’s take a look at both of these should-have-been-smash albums.

Title Let It Bee loveBUZZ
Act Voice of the Beehive The Hummingbirds
Label London rooArt
Release Date June 1988 November 1989
Producer Pete Collins; Hugh Jones (5, 10, 11); Marvin Etzioni (6) Mitch Easter
Chart Peak U.S. n/c U.K. 13 U.S. n/c U.K. n/c
Tracks
  1. Beat of Love
  2. Sorrow Floats
  3. Don’t Call Me Baby
  4. Man In the Moon
  5. What You Have Is Enough
  6. Oh Love
  7. I Walk the Earth
  8. Trust Me
  9. I Say Nothing
  10. There’s A Barbarian In the Back of My Car
  11. Just A City
  12. This Weak (bonus track)
  13. Jesus (bonus track)
  1. Blush
  2. She Knows…
  3. Hollow Inside
  4. Tuesday
  5. Word Gets Around
  6. House Taken Over
  7. Get On Down
  8. Alimony
  9. Everything You Said
  10. Barbarian
  11. Three In the Morning
  12. Michelle As Well
  13. If You Leave
  14. Miles to Go

WHO THEY ARE

Voice of the Beehive centered on sisters Tracey Bryn and Melissa Brooke Belland. Their father had charted a number of hits in the 50s with the Four Preps, and they were child actors in LA featuring mostly in TV ads. The sisters moved to London, eventually hooking up with two members of Madness — Woody Woodgate on drums and Mark Bedford on bass — to form their band featuring vocals from both women and guitar work from Tracey. After adding guitarist Mike Jones, they signed to London records and put together their first album.

The Hummingbirds formed in Sydney’s thriving inner-city music scene. Vocalist, guitarist and principle songwriter Simon Holmes emerged from the promising but short-lived Bug-Eyed Monsters with drummer Mark Temple. They quickly connected with guitarist / vocalist Alannah Russack and bassist / vocalist Robyn St. Clare. After a couple of promising indie singles, fledgling label rooArt won the bidding war and signed the band. The label was confident enough that it brough in jangle-pop superstar producer Mitch Easter to helm the sessions.

WHAT’S SIMILAR

Both bands practiced a brilliant take on power pop, emphasizing jangly guitars and strong hooks. They both featured incredible harmonies, using multiple vocalists to great effect. Both wrote smart songs with wry lyrics and a bit of a dark edge. Both managed a stellar debut album without a single dud. (Although the closing bonus track on Let It Bee — a pleasant cover of the Velvet Underground’s Jesus — is decent filler.) Both received a great deal of critical buzz with very little commercial success. Both borrowed and slightly respelled their titles — Let It Bee from the Beatles and loveBUZZ from Nirvana’s first single.

WHAT’S DIFFERENT

Voice of the Beehive’s sound centers on the kind of uncanny harmonies that only family members can generate. The Belland sisters are amazing together and create a charming, almost whimsical energy. The guitars are bright and poppy with rhythm work providing a bit of an edge. Their sound has a clear, consistent sheen to it. While they spend plenty of time looking at broken relationships, bad decisions, and the traumas of life, the overall sound is fairly optimistic, and some of the songs are clear marching orders for making the best of things.

The Hummingbirds take a darker approach, with an almost brooding sound. The harmonies are spectacular, making the most of the male/female pairings and creating a distinctive vocal sound. The music swirls more below the surface, with the instruments blending together as a powerful whole. While there is a current of hope and passion running through the songs, the overall effect is more sombre. The Hummingbirds are less convinced that it will all work out in the end, but equally certain that it’s worth the journey.

WEIRD COINCIDENCE

Track 10 on both albums is about a Barbarian. The Hummingbirds create a bittersweet ode to a lost companion while Voice of the Beehive really want to get rid of the oaf that they’re stuck with. Both songs rank in the middle of their respective album’s pack, but they both capture the energy of the bands nicely and create one more point of curious comparison.

STANDOUT TRACKS

Both albums present a lovely, cohesive whole with strong songs and great sequencing. That said, a handful stand out from the pack on both.

Let It Bee opens with a bang. After a charming bit of honeybee buzzing, the sisters play with every sense of the phrase Beat of Love making it a celebration, cautionary tale, and irresistible pop gem. Oh Love is a bit of a musical departure with a folky sound — including a great fiddle line from the legendary Dave Swarbrick –that works very nicely and shows some smart diversity in the Bellands’ bag of pop tricks. Trust Me is the strongest of the life-can-be-great songs, maintaining an edge while pledging honesty and support. Sorrow Floats is one of the best pop songs about addiction ever written, an aching look at a friend who is drowning in a bottle. It’s smart, powerful, and tense. Don’t Call Me Baby is a brilliant kiss off song, a power-pop heiress to These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ that manages to be spiteful, funny, and danceable all at once.

The Hummingbirds also launch their debut disc on a strong note. Blush is flawless, a layered masterpiece of clever wordplay, sincere emotion, and great playing. It’s one of those songs that comes across as so easy that you know how much work went into it. Russack’s Tuesday is a catchy, poignant, elliptical story of attraction. She Knows… is one of the finest uses of the band’s harmonies, with Holmes creating a strong backdrop over which Russack and St. Clare provide a stirring narration. On Three In the Morning, Holmes engages in some nice wordplay, wondering about the possible consequences of an overnight encounter. It has just the right edge and makes it clear that he’s not sure what outcome he really wants. All four band members get writing credit on If You Leave (no, NOT that one), a lush mini-epic that echoes the sound of the Mamas and the Papas while creating a lovely soundscape all its own.

FURTHER LISTENING

Sadly, another thing both bands had in common was label problems. The Hummingbirds clashed with rooArt, and ditched their contract after a second disc. They released a couple of indie EPs before finally calling it a day in 1993. The other discs are decent, but the tensions with the label mirrored internal strife and the magic of loveBUZZ was never recaptured.

Voice of the Beehive were subjected to a huge array of producers for their sophomore effort, Honey Lingers. The result is a sometimes charming hodgepodge with some lovely tracks and some odd choices. Somehow, the Partridge Family cover I Think I Love You is a real standout. The sisters went through a series of personal and professional traumas, finally releasing Sex & Misery as a duo in 1993. It’s more solid than Honey Lingers but consistent in a fairly pedestrian way. Fans of the band’s sound will enjoy both discs, but nothing comes close to Let It Bee.

Both bands were gone before the post-grunge alt-rock boom that might have buoyed their careers really got rolling. What they left us, however, is two very fine albums that show off a sense of musical history, beautiful singing, tight playing, inventiveness, and a sense of fun. All pop should be so delightful.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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