The word "twee" might not ring a bell, or it might sound several alarms. For the Brits, it's slang for something cloying cute or quaint. Think pictures of sleeping kittens wearing hand-knit sweaters -- it's cute overload incarnate.
Musically, twee is a little less simplistic. Think Scotland (and yes, Belle and Sebastian), overly precocious and precious lyrics about love and heartbreak, self-conscious use of unusual or even toy instruments, lo-fi boy/girl vocals. Despite the lack of kittens in sweaters, it would still seem like the opposite of good, old-fashioned rock n' roll.
But we'd like to look beyond bands like The Boy Least Likely To, who are fun, but ultimately lack depth. Far from simply whimsical, at it's best, twee is equal parts sweet and melancholy, innocent and raucous. And yes, it rocks. Plus, many of the original late-'80s twee bands helped form the basis for indie rock as we know it today, especially in terms of their DIY ethic, something twee-friendly record labels such as K Records and Sarah Records championed. It was the post-punk era after all, and some of that chaotic spirit no doubt rubbed off on these upstart bands from Scotland and the U.S. What follows is our incomplete guide to giving twee a chance (be-sweatered kittens optional):
Beat Happening -- Beat Happening
The singing is not exactly what you'd call "good," "on key" or even "singing," but Calvin Johnson's rumbling monotone is about as distinctive as a (non)singing voice gets. And Beat Happening's 1985 debut album is about as lo-fi as it gets. Beat Happening is a ramshackle, sprawling 45 minutes of songs that are compellingly gritty, which might not be what the word "twee" brings to mind for the uninitiated. The lyrics are cutesy, yes (sample verse: "We were wearing our pajamas/We were eating some bananas/I wanted to tell you how I want to be your pal"), but the instrumentation, though undeniably simple, owes as much to the anarchism of punk as it does to anything inherently "cute."
In this way, Beat Happening is heir to the Ramones' urgent, brash style. Check out the faux-punk sneer of "Bad Seeds," which could have easily been appropriated by a "real" punk band as an unironic anthem. But for every punk-y "Bad Seeds" there's a song like "Let's Kiss," which references "Tequila" (yes, that "Tequila") by stripping down its melodic '50s pop goodness. So despite being simplistic, Beat Happening has a broad range.
Many of the songs don't even hit the two-minute mark, and the album including multiple songs with the same title adds to the band's unconcerned, throw-it-together aesthetic. Songs like the shuffling "In My Memory" find their modern day counterpart in bands like the Moldy Peaches, who never sound like they are taking themselves too seriously -- something Beat Happening, and many twee bands, do with aplomb.
The Vaselines -- A Complete History
Nirvana fans will recognize some of the song titles on A Complete History: the grunge icons covered several of the Vaselines' songs, including "Molly's Lips" and "Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam." That these Scots influenced Kurt Cobain is immediately apparent when opening track "Son of a Gun" begins in a burst of emphatically uncute guitar scuzz. But the scuzz quickly gives way to Frances McKee's breathtakingly sweet vocals and the band's mesmerizingly simple drumming (think proto-Meg White). "Son of A Gun," released in 1987, was the Vaseline's first single, and it encapsulates everything good about the contradictions of twee. A Complete History, released in 1992, collects all of the Vaselines' recordings on one rollicking album.
As a vocalist, McKee often sounds straight out of a '60s girl group, while co-Vaseline Eugene Kelly channels a higher-pitched, squeakier version of Lou Reed. Despite their amateur style, the boy-girl harmonies Kelly and McKee manage to construct are one of the Vaselines' most arresting qualities and one of the hallmarks of the twee sound.
Lyrically, A Complete History is full of awkward double entendres -- see "Rory Rides Me Raw," ostensibly about a bicycle, and "Monsterpussy," ostensibly about a cat, along with just about every other song on the album. "Endearingly raunchy" is a phrase applicable to few bands, but the Vaselines earn it. It's hilarious to listen to such vulgarity pulled off with wide-eyed, jangling earnestness (the back-and-forth moaning at the end of "You Think You're a Man" will make fainthearted twee fans blush). Again, it's the contrast between the lyrical and musical scuzz and the surprisingly winsome vocal harmonies that make the Vaselines so infectious.
The Field Mice -- For Keeps
Decidedly less lo-fi than Beat Happening or the Vaselines, For Keeps is an album that revels in its fragility. The Field Mice are missing that anarchic, post-punk flavor that informs other early twee bands, but For Keeps, released in 1991 as the band's only full-length LP, is an unusually expansive record. You can even hear a little bit of later Britpop bands such as The Verve, who were certainly all about being expansive.
It's this contradiction, between quiet fragility and evocative, complex instrumentation, that makes For Keeps such an engaging album and Field Mice such an engaging band.
The Field Mice don't beat the listener over the head sonically (which, to be fair, can be either awesome or unbearable, depending on the band). Vocally, they often recall the Smiths, sans Morrissey's flair for robust melodrama. Even a happy song like "Coach Station Reunion," which starts off in a burst of sunny, '60s guitar, stutters along with what must be one of the quietest uses of reverb ever.
At their best, their songs have a surreal, dreamlike quality. "This Is Not Here" sounds like it's being sung underwater, in the best way possible, and the almost-instrumental "Tilting At Windmills" manages to recall whale songs in a way that is not completely new-age creepy (remember those whale song CDs?).
One thing that Field Mice do well is force the listener to pay attention without resorting to being obvious. They follow the aforementioned multilayered "Tilting at Windmills" with the plain and plaintive "Think of These Things," where vocals take precedence over an unadorned piano melody. This sudden contrast represents how, at it's best, twee can be both sad and joyful, complexly arranged but emotionally direct.