As unlikely as it seems, Guitars And Microphones is the first solo album from the B-52s’ Kate Pierson. There was rumblings of a solo project some years ago, but the re-emergence of B-52s and the year writing and recording process for their last studio album, Funplex (2008) put the brakes on.
So at 66, an age when most vocalists are preparing for their last hurrah, Pierson is making her first. In truth, Guitars And Microphones is not entirely a solo album as it is co-produced and written by Sia, and The Strokes guitarist Nick Valensi makes understated appearances across the album.
Despite being aided and abetted somewhat, Pierson’s voice is at the centre of everything here, as would be expected. There is, after all nobody that does quite what Kate Pierson does. Over the course of the B-52s’ near 40 year career she’s sounded consistent, exciting and evocative. When Pierson sings, you know it’s her, and to have stamped her authority on a band that also features the idiosyncratic performances of Fred Schneider and the equally fantastic Cindy Wilson takes some doing.
There are no surprises on Guitars And Microphones musically, particularly for those who have followed the B-52s movement away from post-punk surf twang and into carefully sheened pop. The most startling thing is that her voice has never really aged, she still sounds like the same Kate Pierson that graced those early B-52s songs.
Kicking off with Throw Down The Roses, Pierson sets about reminding her audience that she’s still something of a party girl. With the rhythmic meter of a cheerleader chant (it’s a distant cousin of Toni Basil’s Mickey), she examines the role of women in music and about establishing a individual identity thanks to lines like “I don’t need a wristband to tell me who I am”. Thanks to an infectious chorus and a stomping hook, it’s an assured start.
While the simplicity of the structure of Throw Down The Roses allows for some rather simplistic phrases to hit home and not sound particularly clichéd, the “trans-anthem” Mister Sister falls a long way short. Pierson has been the subject of some fairly pointed criticism over the simplistic and, some might say, insulting lyrics. It’s understandable that this has happened, because however well intentioned the song was intended to be, even it’s title sounds like a throwback to a bygone age. Regardless of the political aspects of the song, it’s actually rather lumpen and uninspired.
Fortunately Guitars and Microphones has enough high points to bury the embarrassment of Mister Sister. The balladry of Crush Me With Your Love is elegant and impassioned, proving that whilst she’s most often thought of as a vocalist dripping with sass, there’s a heart to her delivery that is often overlooked. The slow, after-hours piano croon of Pulls You Under is no less impassioned but veers into Broadway show territory. It just about works, thanks mainly to Kate’s career long way of delivering kitsch with real meaning.
Where the album succeeds is, unsuprisingly, in its choruses, Bottoms Up might start out with a spiky Strokes gait, but it soon develops into a ridiculously effective earworm. The delicate Wolves unfurls into a series of perfect melodies that hark back to the likes of Revolution Earth. Even Matrix, one of the weaker songs on the album comes to life as soon as Pierson adds some rasp and attacks her lines with vigour.
Despite an occasional misfire, Guitars And Microphones is stuffed full of pop gold. As a solo effort, it’s not so dissimilar to the later B-52s later work as to throw off her long term fans. There are occasions where the presence of Fred Schneider would not go amiss, which only accentuates the longing for new material from Kate’s band. Whilst this is an album that will draw comparisons to the band that made her name, it is a fine, if long overdue, solo effort.