With evident aspirations to be Germany’s most convincing naïfs, this lo-fi trio plies its adorable pop trade largely in stylistic emulation of the Television Personalities. Tunefully singing sweet-and-sour love lyrics in quietly accented (and slightly flat) English against brash guitar strums and a puppy-like rhythm section, the ultra-sensitive Bartlebees carefully press the tender leaves of supposed adolescence between the pages of a tear-stained diary. Unlike the flashy culture references and anguished passions of the TVPs (whose leader, Dan Treacy, plays organ on two of the first album’s tracks), the Bartlebees are a blandly genial lot, posting their concise and alluring missives to unnamed romantic correspondents.
The group’s skills have improved over the course of four longplayers (From Path of Pain to Jewels of Glory, the Bartlebees’ only US album, is a twenty-six-song CD combining the first two German releases and three bonus tracks), but never far exceed the minimum standards required to convey a shapely melody. Guitarist Patrick’s singing and the playing (especially Armen’s slapdash drumming) on The Bartlebees (also referred to as Diary of a Youngblood) are on the cavalier side of simple; still, originals like “No Stories,” “Someday I’ll Send You a Rainbow,” “Love the Moment” and “I Laugh Again” demonstrate the band’s genuine facility for upholding tradition without coming off like mere copycats. (The members’ actual names are notoriously hard to pin down: the American release identifies them as both Toby, Less and Keith and Smokey, Randy and Bonzo.)
The better-balanced sound on Finally We Did It is matched by a squinch more self-assurance in the unfussy, uncomplicated performances. But the songwriting is not quite as reliable, and a guitar tuner would have been useful. Consequently, while “First Love,” the Ramonesy “I Want to Know You’re Happy” and the instrumental “Rock and Roll President” are fine showings, a full-bodied cover of the Vaselines’ “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” (covered more famously by Nirvana) stands out more than it probably should.
What Is It All About? puts all the pieces together in a prime platter of modest pop craft. The spot introduction of acoustic rhythm guitar adds a welcome dose of cream to the sonic tea, while strong melodies, longer songs, bolder arrangements, better playing (compare the piano remake of “Rock and Roll President” to the original version) and cannier lyrics (“My Invisible Friend” praises the subject for not signing with David Geffen; “I Would Have Left You Anyway” betrays an advanced state of emotional candor) all contribute to the maturation of a cool combo that doesn’t need to hide behind its imaginings of youth. Topped off with a very pretty cover of “Angela Jones” (a 1960 British hit for Joe Meek protégé Michael Cox), What Is It All About? contains the real scoop on the Bartlebees.
Although it breaks tradition with a surprisingly boisterous rocker (“You Will Make It”) and the ludicrously languid French-language “La Chanson de Prevert, the ten-song 10-inch Miracles for Sale genially maintains the trio’s idyllic pop breeze in such girl-loving/girl-hurting lullabies as “Hello Stranger,” “You’re Not the Only One,” “This Is What I Was Made For” and “Don’t Make Me Fall in Love With You,” the pronunciation of which reveals a Teutonic hazard in this kind of lied.