Back in the early ’90s, when I was going to college, I realized I had a non-ironic love of Hall & Oates. The Philly duo’s star had fallen and they quickly became the butt of many jokes among the ‘too cool’ crowds following grunge. As such, I kept my love to myself (no innuendo intended), keeping secret the fact that I owned a vinyl copy of Private Eyes, and listened to some of the best blue-eyed soul in relative seclusion. A roommate of mine overheard one day, and, rather than ridiculing, let me know that he thought “Rich Girl” was one of the best songs ever written. He then began to sing it to himself and dance around in a herky-jerky fashion as only he could, and then I was slightly uncomfortable. But, that didn’t change the truth of his statement.
I still harbor a non-ironic love for Hall & Oates to this day. The hip-hop crowd, stemming from the world of R&B, latched on as well, cementing their iconic status. The first instance I can remember of the combination was De La Soul’s “Say No Go,” but it wouldn’t be the last time one of the duo’s songs would be sampled effectively. Since then, Hall & Oates’ star has risen again, not with new material, but with an overall embracing of their classic material, including six number one hits. The most recent display of H&O love is in the musical number of (500) Days of Summer, finding Joseph Gordon Levitt lip-synching and dancing to “You Make My Dreams.” So, it was no surprise to me to find that a modern duo chose to pay tribute to these legendary performers.
The Bird & the Bee, a.k.a. Greg Kurstin and Inara George, made a name for themselves with the single, “Fucking Boyfriend.” They’ve since been electro-pop darlings, finding their songs appearing in movies and television shows frequently. It’s clear from the title of their latest album, Interpreting the Masters…, that they hold Hall & Oates in the same high regard that I do. The B&B take on the most well-known hits, including five of the six number ones, concentrating on the pair in the prime. Their love is further expressed in the opening track, the only original song on the album, “Heard It on the Radio.” In this song alone, we are immersed in the feeling of nostalgia. Not only do the lyrics reminisce about hearing these songs in a more innocent and romantic time, but the music can stand alongside the duo’s output comfortably. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some listeners might mistake it for a lost Hall & Oates b-side.
Each track is lovingly covered by Kurstin and George in their jazzy, electro-pop fashion. Still, no track is so drastically changed that we may be in danger of being alienated from the originals. “Sara Smile” is as soulful as ever, as is “She’s Gone,” two of the duo’s earliest successes. In these two songs alone, we can hear the strength of the songwriting and hooks that made Hall & Oates so winning. It’s difficult for me to think of “Private Eyes” without picturing Vinnie Van Lowe, but the Bird & the Bee have finally given me another reference point. George’s silky and sultry vocals, combined with Kurstin’s retro-funk keys makes me think that this is the Dirty Mind version of Hall & Oates’ greatest hits, and it works to perfection. It is through this interpretation that the best covers end up being “Rich Girl” and “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do).” Whether this is due to the strength of the song itself or the Prince-like flavor is hard to say. “One on One” is another standout, though for a different reason. It transforms from soul ballad to steamy ’80s soundtrack fodder in B&B’s hands. Think Top Gun or Footloose.
Interpreting the Masters also boasts the caveat that this is the first volume in a series. If the ensuing chapters are as engaging and fun as the first, I’ll be sure to tune in, but I’m wondering what other bands of that era can rival Hall & Oates in sheer pop earworm bliss. Duran Duran? Fleetwood Mac? The Cars? I say a Prince tribute album is the best way to go after listening to this album.