I love Hall & Oates. If you were born around the same time the duo flipped “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” and at least one of your chromosomes carries the recessive gene that produces a susceptibility to hipsterdom, you love Hall & Oates too. But all I could think while listening to neo-synth pop duo the Bird and the Bee’s new collection of Hall & Oates covers, which comes complete with Private Eyes-cribbing cover art, was that hipsters might not be the best candidates to celebrate the legacy of the definitely MOR legends.
The mix of ironic disinterest in Inara George’s vocals and slow-burning, hermetic romanticism in Greg Kurstin’s keyboards and production is pretty intoxicating when the songs are on the same page, as they were on their self-titled 2007 album, most notably on the carnivalesque “My Fair Lady,” the lust hung-over “Fucking Boyfriend,” and the giddy “Again & Again.” But the most striking thing about Hall & Oates’s original string of hits, stretching from “Sara Smile” in the mid-‘70s right up through Hall’s pitch-perfect “It’s true we make a better day, just you and me” in “We Are the World,” is the clean, pre-postmodern sincerity behind their delivery. They always mean what they sing. Your kiss is on their list. Private eyes are watching you. They can’t go for that. The sentiments were perfectly complemented by their simple synth arrangements and sunny, L.A.-soul flourishes. Even their masterpiece, “I Can’t Go for That,” with its starkly ethereal pulse a la Phil Collins’s concurrent “In the Air Tonight” and introverted wall of vocals, is so otherwise unclogged that it’s otherworldly.
It’s a posture I know Kurstin is capable of. As half of Geggy Tah, he made me believe all he really did want to do was to thank me (even though he didn’t know who I was), simply because I let him change lanes in “Whoever You Are.” Unfortunately, the formula isn’t colloidally smooth like it should be here. George and Kurstin’s performances come off lugubrious and detached. Bright pianos and snapping guitar lines are swapped for droning organs and wobbly synthesizers vaguely reminiscent of Lovesexy-era Prince.
Time will tell if this is a one-off for the Bird and the Bees or if they indeed plan on following up Volume 1 with a complete songbook’s worth of releases. For now, the musicianship is there, and I can’t fault them their enthusiasm in the Hall & Oates back catalogue. It’s just that Sara’s smile gets lost in the interpretation.