Since forming in 2005, the bird and the bee have brought a breezy elegance to their music, putting their own idiosyncratic twist on time-bending indie-pop. On their latest album, the L.A.-based duo find an unlikely vessel for that sound: #TK covers of some of the most massive and magnificently wild songs from David Lee Roth-era Van Halen.
The fifth full-length from singer Inara George and multi-instrumentalist Greg Kurstin, Interpreting the Masters, Vol. 2: A Tribute to Van Halen both sheds new light on the glory of classic VH and further proves the playful brilliance of the bird and the bee. Though it arrives on the heels of 2015’s Recreational Love, the album more closely follows Interpreting the Masters, Vol. 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates, a 2010 release hailed as “wink-free pop bliss” by Entertainment Weekly. This time around, George and Kurstin find common ground with their source material in a shared affinity for fantastically intricate rhythms, unforgettable melodies, and—most essentially—a certain ecstatic spirit imbued into every song.
Produced by Kurstin—a seven-time Grammy Award-winner who’s recently worked with Kendrick Lamar, Paul McCartney, and Adele—Interpreting the Masters, Vol. 2 alchemizes the outrageous dazzle of Diamond Dave into something delicate and dreamy and softly shimmering. And while it features guest musicians like bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen (known for his work with Beck and Nine Inch Nails) and drummers Joey Waronker (R.E.M., Elliott Smith) and Omar Hakim (David Bowie, Miles Davis), George and Kurstin made most of the album on their own, infusing even the most over-the-top tracks with a gentle intimacy.
For Kurstin—an accomplished jazz pianist who studied with Charles Mingus band member Jaki Byard—one of the greatest challenges in making the album involved translating Eddie Van Halen’s virtuoso guitar playing into his performance on piano. “I know there’s a jazz influence with the Van Halen brothers, so I tried to channel some of the things that I felt might’ve influenced Eddie,” Kurstin notes. “In a way ‘Eruption’ is almost like a piece of classical music, so I mostly treated it that way as I interpreted it for piano,” he adds, referring to the iconic instrumental guitar solo from Van Halen’s self-titled debut.
On the lead single “Panama,” meanwhile, Kurstin’s lush piano work replaces the revved-up guitar riffs of the original, transforming the track into a radiant pop anthem bathed in bright synth and George’s luminous vocals. Elsewhere on Interpreting the Masters, Vol. 2, “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love” warps into a new-wavey fever dream, and “Jump” turns strangely ethereal thanks to George’s hypnotic vocal percussion. And on “Jamie’s Cryin’,” her tender vocal delivery reveals a rarely acknowledged sensitivity in Roth’s storytelling. “Some songs were a little complicated to reimagine from a female perspective, but once I dug into the lyrics I realized that David Lee Roth is a great lover of women,” George says. “When it comes down to it, ‘Jamie’s Cryin’ is really a sweet song about a girl who isn’t made for recreational love.”
Not only evidence of their ingenuity as song interpreters, the bird and the bee’s nuanced reading of Van Halen has much to do with their deep emotional connection to the band. “I remember being 10-years-old and seeing their videos and feeling both excited and totally terrified—I responded to them in this very visceral way,” says George. Also a diehard fan, Kurstin got the chance to work with Eddie Van Halen at age 12, when the guitar god served as producer on “My Mother Is a Space Cadet”—a 1982 single from Kurstin’s band with Dweezil Zappa. “I got to hang out with him in the studio and go backstage when Van Halen played the Forum, which was a really big moment for my younger self,” he recalls.
First crossing paths when Kurstin performed on George’s 2005 solo debut All Rise, the duo soon bonded over their mutual love for Van Halen. In 2007, after catching her first-ever Van Halen show—on the first tour since 1985 to feature Roth as the band’s frontman—George found herself so charmed by his presence, she approached Kurstin about writing a song for Roth. The result: a swoony serenade called “Diamond Dave,” which graced the tracklist of the bird and the bee’s acclaimed 2008 sophomore album Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future. “We asked him to be in the video, but instead he signed a picture and gave me the yellow top hat he’d worn at the show I saw, which I thought was very sweet,” George says. “When we were trying to figure out who to cover for the second volume of Interpreting the Masters, we were both a little bit like, ‘Oh my god, can we really do it?’ But then we just went for it.”
With the release of Interpreting the Masters, Vol. 2, the bird and the bee hope to spread that near-lifelong Van Halen love to a whole new crop of listeners. “When I want to listen to hard-rock music there’s still nothing that hits me like they do,” Kurstin notes. “Every time I hear them it takes back to when I first found them on the radio, and it felt so dangerous to me—like they were from a whole other world. It would be so great if people who would never usually listen to Van Halen heard this record, and then ended falling in love with them too.”
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