By Eleni P Austin
If there’s one 21st century band out there that’s able to channel the filial harmonies of “SMiLE” era Beach Boys, the candy-coated Psychedelia of the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” and the Baroque grandeur of the Zombies’ epochal “Odyssey And Oracle” album, and whip it all into their own frothy concoction, it’s Bebopalula.
An ad hoc super group, it’s members, Chris Price, Alex Jules, Ben Lefcourt, Corey Perez and Emeen Zarookian came together rather organically. Chris and Alex met in 2015, and when Chris agreed to produce Alex’s first, official solo album, Chris asked his pal Ben to play drums and Emeen was recommended by a mutual friend to engineer the sessions. The chemistry felt electric, once they added Chris’ younger brother Corey to the mix, their line-up was complete.
Chris had been in Los Angeles less than a decade, but had already made a name for himself. Something of a wunderkind, the Miami native had grown up in a musical family. His dad, Rudy Perez, a Grammy Award winning producer, had a recording studio right below Chris’ bedroom. He was playing piano not long after he could walk. He taught himself guitar by placing it flat on his lap and figuring out the chords. (He still plays any stringed instrument this way). He was fronting his first band before puberty hit. At age 21, he formed a band with his brothers, Mikey and Corey. Price The Band got signed to the Geffen label and relocated to L.A. Although the album they recorded was inexplicably shelved, Chris stuck it out in L.A. and has carved out a niche as a simpatico producer, working with reclusive ‘60s geniuses like Linda Perhacs and Emitt Rhodes. He also made time to create three brilliant solo albums whose sound echoed progenitors like Harry Nilsson, the Jackson 5 and the Beatles.
Alex, who grew up in New York, also took up piano before starting Kindergarten. He was heavily influenced by Classical demi-god Leonard Bernstein and by adolescence he was obsessed with John Phillip Sousa and Electric Light Orchestra. After college he moved to New York City, intent on a music career. To make ends meet, he played in cover bands and cocktail lounges. In 2014 he moved to L.A. and gave himself a year to jump-start his career. Rather fortuitously, he connected with another Florida transplant, musical Mad Hatter/producer Fernando Perdomo, and within a few months was sharing the stage with Chris.
Alex began to earn his keep as a touring musician, hitting the road with Denny Laine, formerly of Wings and The Moody Blues, Joey Molland, the last surviving member of Badfinger, and ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith. In between those commitments, he released his solo album, “Topiary” in 2019.
Ben was born in Le Mans, France and took to the drums pretty quickly, he studied Classical and Jazz drumming from childhood until his early ‘20s. For him, drumming deities included the usual suspects like Beatle Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts of the Stones, as well as Jazz legend Roy Haynes. Although he was based in Paris for several years, he also spent time in New York. Moving to Los Angeles was a dream that came true for him about eight years ago.
His musical touchstones included the Beach Boys, as well as British Invasion stalwarts like the Beatles, The Hollies and The Zombies. Ben became an in-demand session drummer, recording with members of the Bee Gees and the Killers. He has also toured with Denny Laine, Joey Molland and ex-Jellyfish leader, Roger Manning, Jr. After meeting through a mutual friend, he has pounded his kit on nearly every Chris Price solo effort.
Emeen is a Boston transplant who moved to L.A. about six years ago. The talented guitarist grew up listening to classic music from Chuck Berry, The Beatles, Beach Boys, Kinks, Ventures, Nilsson and Electric Light Orchestra. He’s played with several L.A. bands, also toured with Joey Molland, as well as Jeremy Clyde, formerly of Chad & Jeremy. A multi-instrumentalist, he has also created original music for commercials and video games. He recently released an album under the Spirit Kid moniker.
Corey was also part of Price The Band, Chris’ younger brother is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and counts ‘60s/70s antecedents like the Kinks, Beatles, Beach Boys and Nilsson as seminal musical influences. A bit of a nomad, over the years, Corey has ping-ponged between L.A. and his hometown of Miami.
The guys bonded over shared influences and began throwing “songwriter parties,” where they would pair up, draw random song titles from a hat and allow themselves 30 minutes to create a song from scratch. Pretty quickly, they began playing shows together, rotating solo numbers with freshly minted collaborations.
Soon there was a serious conversation about becoming a full-fledged band. A discussion of band names ensued, and Emeen’s roommate suggested Bebopalula. Making sure the moniker wasn’t already in use, they discovered hand-painted on the guitar George Harrison used during the “Magical Mystery Tour” era. That seemed like more than a coincidence, it felt like destiny.
Crowding into Emitt Rhodes’ home studio (as Emitt assisted with production chores), the five-piece knocked out their debut EP, All Fall Down in an astounding two days. Not long after, Fernando Perdomo went out of town, and turned over the keys of his Reseda Ranch studio to the guys. Ben was also out of town at the time, so 4 out of 5 Bebopalula-ers tracked all the instrumentation except drums. Ben returned, drums and vocals were added, the result is their self-titled long-player.
The album opens with the Soul-Pop perfection of Coloring Book. Mellotron, organ colors and plangent guitars wash over meandering bass and splattery cymbals. Chris’ tender croon is front and center, braced by a clutch of harmonies that are equal parts SMiLE-y and beatific. The arrangement immediately shapeshifts on the chorus, locking into a joyful, Pop-tastic groove accented by a stompy beat, fluttery horns and carnival keys. The pattern repeats from verse to chorus, as lyrics chart moods by chroma key; “I found a secret hideaway on which I keep all my sets of crayons, now I go looking for the grey and paint it on by/When I look up I see the soft light, monochrome deep black and the pale white it makes me wanna shine a green light and rewrite the night.”
Most bands are ruled by benign dictatorship, Bebopalula is a purely democratic enterprise. This means everyone takes a turn on the mic. That breaks down to four songs a piece for Chris, Alex and Emeen. Ben got one, and Corey got none, perhaps because he moved back to Miami before the vocals were recorded.
Alex’s four tracks marry Pure Pop instincts to elegant, Classically-tinged arrangements. “Gone For So Long” is anchored by braided 12-string guitars, plush keys, blocky percussion and wily bass. Alex’s intricate vocal delivery is abetted by sighing harmonies. Opaque lyrics hint at a moribund romance that continues to haunt; “Gone for so long but not forgotten, silently shapes each day/I could hold on but why go on that way..”
Caffeinated keys and wobbly bass lines open “What If You Love Her.” Rattletrap percussion pulsates and whirs over a chunky backbeat. Following in the sublime tradition of Todd Rundgren’s “We Gotta Get You A Woman,” Alex seems intent on helping a pal score; “If you come in so hot, you’re gonna wreck it all, she’s up so high and all you can do is help her fall.” His helpful hints are shaded by twinkly piano, swirly Mellotron notes and ethereal harmonies, all propelled by a rat-a-tat-tat martial cadence.
There’s a nervous, New Wave energy to “I Think You Own It.” Effervescent synths fold into prickly piano, and whispery acoustic guitars are bookended by elastic bass lines and a jittery rhythm. The skittish arrangement perfectly mirrors Alex’s fidgety mien; “I smoke a pack then take a break, another drink to stop the shakes/My mind’s a loop an endless race, I can’t catch up, can’t keep the pace.” The amphetamine rush instrumentation suddenly shudders to a halt, collapsing in a heap.
His final contribution, “Out The Door” is a bit of a cinematic shimmer. Lapping keys pool and eddy as Alex’s warm tenor wraps around a tale of global heartbreak; “Berlin was cold all winter long she lit a fire there, on the marquis the bourgeoisie followed her everywhere/But now my back’s against the wall, she doesn’t write she doesn’t call.” A whistle-y outro echoes the continental savoir faire of Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains at the close of “Casablanca.”
While Alex and Chris have both garnered a lot of attention with their solo albums, Emeen has kind of flown under the radar with his Spirit Kid project. Consequently, his songs offer the sweetest surprises.
First up is the jangly Power Pop of “Rotten Apple.” Although the lyrics namecheck the We Five’s “You Were On My Mind,” the skeleton of the melody shares some musical DNA with the Miracles’ Motown classic, “Tracks Of My Tears.” Stacked electric and acoustic guitars lattice over vintage EKO Tiger, and Major Morgan The Electronic Organ notes, tensile bass, handclaps and a tumbling beat. Honeyed harmonies envelope Emeen’s boyish tenor, nearly camouflaging his caustic words for a toxic ex; “So call it what it is, you think you’re happy but you missed, you led it on, Rotten Apple on my mind.”
If Phil Spector had ever collaborated with The Quick, it might’ve sounded like “We Remain.” Canned applause is quickly supplanted by a synthesized ping, rippling castanets, roiling bass, handclaps and a percussive assault. Jabberwocky lyrics are manic on the verses and slightly soporific on the chorus, and the harmonies are positively incandescent on the bridge cryptic bridge; “Ballad of unknown men, children decide, living and breathing we die.”
“No Suzanna” is a Paisley/Power Pop combo platter that could easily sandwich between the Raspberries’ “Go All The Way” and The Three O’ Clock’s “Jet Fighter.” Ringing guitars connect with rumbling bass, spacey keys and a stutter-y high-hat beat. Gossamer harmonies really sell non-sequiturs like “Hot enough to go out and try to find somebody, and get a haircut again, now you’ve got it made.” Plinky piano trills and some angelic “la-la-la-la-la-la’s” on the break give way to a stately pas de deux between brittle piano and stinging guitar riffs which build to a stunning crescendo.
“The Charmer” is the best AM Pop radio hit you’ve never heard. Slinky and self-assured, it’s powered by a hiccupping beat, lithe keys, low-slung guitars, piquant horns and slithery bass lines. Breezy and Burt Bacharach-ian, the song cements it’s easy-going allure with this sing-songy couplet; “Red things and mood rings, it’s cool to be together in the middle of the sundown with present company/Bad news and blue shoes and meanwhile we didn’t want to go outside ‘til we’re satisfied.”
Ben’s lone number, “The Spectre,” is at once spacious and ornate. A Psychedelic tone poem, it opens with Ben’s slightly detached vocals and a lumbering backbeat, but blissful “oooh oooh oooh’s” bolster each verse. A Sgt. Peppery horn fanfare laps over woozy keys and spidery guitars on the break. Right before Ben issues an invitation that feels positively lysergic; “Lying down under the windows, you wish to sail where the wind blows/So let’s climb on my flying rug, let’s ride, together, to the New World.”
Aside from “Coloring Book,” Chris weighs in with three more tracks. The divine liturgy of “Mockingbird” feels seamless; a mostly acapella hymn, it’s fueled by church-y keys and bare-bones guitar and bass. Veiled lyrics note that a by-product of progress is greed and corruption, nevertheless, humankind must take a moment and be still; “In silence watching the Mockingbird compose a sonnet, gift to her mother who provides the light she knows.”
There’s a bloopy pulse to “So Much To See,” which gently chides our instant gratification culture, urging us to put down our phones and take a look around. One verse seems to resonate with right now; “Every day somebody needs help, better not rest our eyes/Every day another protest asking for my time, every second in the here and now, every moment we are all around.”
The album closes with Chris’ “Rock Two Step.” Something of a stream-of-conscious twist & shout, it features buzzy guitars, static-y percussion, angular bass lines, pounding piano, threading keys and blustery vocals. Speaking to the current musical climate, he insists that “Rock, Rock music lost it’s movement, drop this new shit, make ‘em turn it up, uh-huh-huh, oh, don’t let it go now.” A duck-walking guitar solo crests over the break, and a shred of optimism is offered; “Today is over, and tomorrow is looking worse/The sky is burnin’ and the fire is bright, but I roll on, cause everything could turn around overnight.”
While the band played nearly everything, they received some assistance from L.A. music legends like Kaitlin Wolfberg on violin and viola and Probyn Gregory on flugelhorn, trombone, trumpet and French horn.
Although Bebopalula endeavored to create a modern day fusion of SMiLE, Odyssey And Oracle and Magical Mystery Tour, this record also seems to take some inspiration from The White Album. Much as John, Paul, George and Ringo each brought an independent vision to the studio, Chris, Alex, Ben, Emeen and Corey’s contrasting styles have coalesced. Consequently, they’ve created an indelible collection of songs, rich in texture and nuance.