March 07, 2006

Sick Bees "The Marina Album"

When the Sick Bees released their debut album in 1998, I was a high school junior. I used to make mix tapes for the few friends of mine who shared similar taste in music. I didn’t put the Sick Bees on any of them, though, because I knew that even my most open-minded friends wouldn’t like them. Singer Starla’s guitars were tuned strangely, even by Sonic Youth standards, and her voice frequently switched from an off-key lilt to a drill sergeant’s holler. Julio’s drumming sound lopsided, and he often sounded like he was playing with junk percussion instead of a real kit. Together, they sounded like kids making a racket in a garage…which they probably were! I didn’t have a problem with it, though. Their songs were catchy, and when they set their mind to rocking, they did so with a power that compensated for their rudimentary musicianship and slippery grasp of pitch. Not many people seemed to agree with me, though. Their sophomore album, 2000’s awesome My Pleasure, received a 3.6 rating in Pitchfork and was dismissed as “twee metal” by Fakejazz.

That was the last I’d heard from the Sick Bees, and I was forced to spend my college years without them. Apparently, the first half of this decade has been rough for the Seattle duo. Julie Knolin, one of their closest friends (and an occasional musical collaborator), died while they were making My Pleasure. Then, Chris Takino, the founder of the band’s record label, died five months after the album’s release. Understandably, the band had no motivation to promote or tour behind it. If that wasn’t enough to cripple them, the medical problems certainly did the trick. Julio had back problems that made playing music physically painful for him; he eventually had to have surgery to correct them. Starla also had an operation performed on her throat for some undisclosed ailment. Eventually, they eked out The Marina Album, which was released last summer. If I hadn’t found a used copy of this CD at a record store in Ohio while on my last tour, I probably wouldn’t even know that the Sick Bees still exist!

The title is a misnomer, if not an outright joke: The Marina Album is a 16-minute EP that runs through 13 tracks, only half of which sound like the same band that made My Pleasure. On “Paint My Apartment,” Starla sings of a house in disarray (“And my bedroom’s tilted/and my chimney’s wilted/and my toilet’s leaking/and my porch is creaking”), her voice getting more and more unhinged as the song progresses. “Rat Traps” continues the domestic theme. On this song, Starla’s voice intentionally veers off key, on top of a bed of fuzz guitars and rubber ducks (??!?) used as percussion instruments. On “Yer Cat Loves Me,” the “cat” in question is revealed to be a vagina halfway through; it’s a juvenile trick, even by the band’s standards, but the song rocks harder than anything else on the EP. “Prepare to Be Dazzled” consists of Starla singing two lines: “If you’ve never heard me sing…,” followed by the title. Her voice goes flat during the word “sing,” which is hilarious to me, and the horns that pop up during the last 20 seconds are even more so. Then, there’s “God Will Stop Yer Party,” a 23-second punk blast that’s shockingly infectious despite its brevity.

The other half of this EP finds the Sick Bees indulging in the kind of experiments that most bands wouldn’t even use as B-sides. The best examples of this can be found on what I’m going to call “the interracial trilogy.” “Le Beat O” is a found-sound recording of a personal ad made by a woman seeking “a woman of color to look past my white skin, and see my black soul.” On “Chikikwa,” which sounds like lounge music played in the key of Z, Starla sings the refrain “Show me love/my white skin/my black blood.” On the spoken-word rant “My Beard,” Starla adopts a thick Southern accent and drawls, “You’re a sweet brown sugar…I’d talk black to get you back!”

Of course, a 16-minute EP is a tease when it comes from a band that hasn’t released anything in five years --- especially when half of it initially sounds like they’re having a laugh in the studio at our expense. The more I listened to The Marina Album, though, the more I felt like I was being let in on the joke. Plus, the EP’s brevity and diversity certainly keeps it from getting boring, which might make it the best entry point for people who haven’t heard the band before (i.e., probably everyone reading this). Welcome back, Sick Bees! Please give me a real album before I turn 30.

---Sean Padilla

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