The Bandana Splits (retro pop)

Boy Scout Recordings DIB018CD, 2011, CD album, 30m 31s

$9.99 ($5.99 for DD album)

It seems to be an automatic attribution nowadays to describe any use of a historically located pop-cultural style as ‘ironic’. I caught myself on the verge of unreflectingly starting off about The Bandana Splits’ ‘ironic appropriation of 1950s pop tropes’ or some such bollocks, and then I thought, actually what’s so ironic about it? I think they just like it. I don’t get the impression they’re historical re-enactment geeks, with their houses all done up 50s style, but they clearly enjoy the sounds and sights of that era, and irony, a word so overused its meanings are nearly invisible, has little or nothing to do with it. There’s a certain mediation and distance, inevitably, in adopting the codes of another era, and the historical perspective permits a more knowing and nuanced use of them (and I obviously don’t mean to suggest that these performers buy all the ideological assumptions of 50s pop), but still, this strikes me as enthusiasm, which is a very different thing from irony.

There are songs on this album I thought I recognised when I first heard them: ‘Ricky Dee’ especially sounds like a classic, as does ‘My Love’, and ‘Hawaiian Love Song’ nails the vibe of a 50s/60s novelty song to an absolute tee. In fact, there are only three songs on this album not credited to The Bandana Splits, and two of those are contemporary compositions. ‘You Don’t Have To Be A Baby To Cry’ was a 1963 hit for The Caravelles. Yeah, no, I hadn’t heard of them either. There’s nothing to make that song stand out either: these three performer-composers have grasped the generic conventions of their chosen style with the detailed rigour of an academic early music ensemble, and the sweet, joyful panache of a… well, of a 1950s girl band.

This is of course a twenty-first century album of twenty-first century music: the observational humour of ‘Lavez Vous’ (‘I learned to speak French/ from beauty products’) is the knowing utterance of an active authorial agent, not the kind of lyric to put in the mouths of wholesome bobby-socked singer-dancers; and ‘Hawaiian Love Song’ would not have passed the notice of the morality police, with all its talk of ‘shackin’ up’ and ‘nookie-noo’. The writing on this album is a prime example of something I’ve always championed, which is the use of generic conventions as compositional materials in their own right (something which many people do in practice, but relatively few admit to). While dull indie bands mouth off about originality and authenticity, and churn out derivative retreads with minor variations, there is a certain discipline and clarity to be gained by self-consciously situating your writing within a particular coded discourse like this. Suddenly, the compositional relationship of all the different elements comes into sharp focus, for writer, performer and listener.

The Bandana Splits are as good at performing (at least in the studio) as they are at writing. Their album is pure delight to listen to from start to finish, with their mellifluous harmonies, elegant diction and nuanced phrasing, while the arrangements are spare, crisp and perfectly judged. The exact poise of each moment’s conception and execution displays intelligence, musical accomplishment and a well developed sense of entertainment. Every detail of the visual package is precisely matched to the sound of the contents. Any expressive limitations that they take on with their chosen genre, are for me more than outweighed by the benefits, with an end result that is amusing, stimulating and fun.

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