January 06, 2002

bis 'return to central'

Ah, what happens when you're too old to be powered by Teen-C? What can you do when your teen-pop star license has expired? Whatever shall you do when you're no longer cute and innocent and awkward? What will you do when your fresh new style is now old and cliche and slightly boring? Where will you go? What will you do? And what will you sound like next?

Why, new wave, of course!

Bis quietly disappeared a few years ago, having seemingly lost their favor as fading flavor of the week with hip-minded post-teens. A dying record label that didn't care about its artists didn't help their cause, and since Bis never became the next Buffalo Daughter, Grand Royal quietly let them go. Despite these rather typical music industry setbacks, Bis, ever the spunky kids, decided to move forward. Last year, the band released an EP, Music for a Stranger World, that hinted at a more mature sound, yet didn't particularly stray too far from their previous album Social Dancing. Looking inward, and buckling down the hatch, Bis decided to finally make the great new wave album they'd always seemingly restrained from making.

"Return to Central" sounds like a new, fresh Bis, full of new ideas, sounds, and greater production ability. In fact, at times "Return to Central" sound soooo fresh, you wouldn't know that they were Bis. This record is so far removed from the Hello, Kitty-totin', beret wearin', bubblegum chewin' lo-fi new wave pop punk days, that you'd have sworn somewhere down the line the band "sold out." Lest you are worried about Bis' new sound, you shouldn't fear; the sugar-rush high of Bis' 20th-century releases is still here, and in full effect, except it's the 21st century, and the brave new world of Bis is much more futuristic.

Could anyone have predicted that the utterly gorgeous, stunningly epic opener "What You're Afraid Of," clearly one of Bis' best songs, would be the weakest track of the record? It certainly says a lot for Bis that their weaker moments can stand up so well to their past records. Suffice to say, "Return to Central" finds Bis looking to the past to make tomorrow's dance hits. Unlike media darlings Ladytron, Bis' newly refined style may have new wave tendencies, but it's certainly not retro.

The difference between imitation and inspiration is very distinct, and Bis know this; instead of sounding like a step back, "Return to Central" is Bis taking 20 steps forward. Manda Rin's singing has matured to the point where her disco-diva singing on "Protection" and "Robotic" totally betrays her past indie-pop cheerleader "singing" style. The same for the blokes who sing; their nervous-nelly singing has been replaced with a smooth, sensual style that at times reminds of Human League, and, in the case of "Silver Spoon," sounds like White Town fronting Human League. I'm aware that mentioning Human League in a review of a new-wave band is virtually the same as mentioning Brian Wilson in a baroque-pop band's review, but the "reminding of Human League" that I mentioned is simply an occasional reminder, unlike Ladytron, who make me want to put on Dare to listen to good new wave.

"Return to Central" is a surprisingly fresh album from a group of kids that many critics (myself included) had dismissed as a cloyingly cute one-trick pony. It's nice to be proven wrong every once in a while, and I've definitely been proven wrong about Bis. This is one of those records that will make you dance, and make you smile, and make you glad you spent the money. It's good to know that there are bands that still know how to make a good dance record. Thanks should be given to Bis for quietly making such a good record, free of irony, sugar, and trendiness, yet never scrimping on its being anything more than a simple, enjoyable pleasure.

--Joseph Kyle

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