Bee Sting Sessions
For someone who spits the letters of the very acronym "CD" out with some distaste, I keep being pleasantly surprised by the ways enterprising bands find of artistically transforming these cold plastic objects into unique personal statements, things worth owning and keeping. I still think that it should be every band's mission to release their music on vinyl as soon as it's logistically achievable. While I'm waiting for the records to start coming in, it's at least really cool to see handmade, scissors-glue-and-sparkles works of art employed as delivery systems for DIY releases. It sure beats jewelboxes. This Zorch EP that I've just received and will discuss soon is so lovely I think I want to frame it. Bee Sting Sessions, a duo project led by tough siren T Ellis, raises expectations for the listener with its budget-classy sleeve and carefully reproduced lyrics.
It seems I have been writing and thinking a lot about misdirection lately. Smart bands, ones that succeed, find a way of reconciling their artistic impulses to play more than one style with most listeners' dependence on thumbnail categorizations. What kind of clothes you wear and haircuts you sport really ought not to color audience reactions to the extent that they do, but they make a difference. One of the traits I look for in developing bands that often appears as a tip-off of future success is an awareness of how they can use outward appearances to manipulate crowd reaction. By presenting their music in outwardly metal/hardcore trappings -- anarchy symbols, fake blood photos, the "parental advisory" logo -- Bee Sting Sessions successfully get listeners to abandon particular emotions they don't want associated with their music.
With roots in big-band jazz and 40's swing, in a different context Ellis's scatting, hothouse vocals could see Bee Sting Sessions pigeonholed as gauzy, sentimental, retro -- She & Him without the extramusical hipster cult. The vocal-driven sound, carried minimally along by basic acoustic guitar chords and Phil Davis's walking electric bass, is recognizably art-folk, Tracy Chapman-esque minimalism and repetition with Natalie Merchant vocal quirks. The modern, most original element to the band is in the lyrics, which makes it a good thing that Bee Sting Sessions have taken care to include them all in the booklet. Aggressive, clear-eyed, and very modern, Ellis may vocalize like a flapper but she does so wearing steel-toed boots.
The combination of the sober, confrontational lyrics and the floaty music makes for a pleasant listen, but both the band and the songwriting seem incomplete. Ellis's compositions aren't entirely without rhythmic changes but they tend to stab at the same two chords for long stretches. The bass does a good job of stepping up for the lack of proper percussion without dominating or distracting from the vocals, but it isn't enough to sustain interest for six whole tracks. "Gabriel's Trumpet" has a disturbing word-salad, studio-edited sequence that makes me wish the band had more noisemakers on board to indulge their experimental leanings further. The lack of a lead instrument gives Ellis less to play off of as a singer, and the too-simple chord changes also hem her in more than Bee Sting Sessions probably realize.
They sound good playing together, and the vocals are graceful and exciting. Now I would like to hear them develop into a full band, with a drummer and a for-serious guitarist who can push T's vocals into darker and weirder territory. They could go several different ways -- a full-band expansion of their basic unsentimental folk-jazz might be very cool, or a band that brought down the thunder and rocked out from time to time. Mostly they just need to keep generating new material, because the only surefire way to write great songs is by getting several dozen boring songs out of your system first.