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Why We Love The Bear

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

minus_the_bear_promo.jpgIt’s undoubtedly been said about hundreds of bands: “Dude — this is the best band you’ve never heard of.” How often is it true? Who knows. All I know is, Minus the Bear is the best band you’ve never heard of (unless you have heard of them, in which case, good on you).

This Seattle quintet is my favourite band at the moment, and I’m going to tell you why. Here’s a quick member rundown: Jake Snider, lead vocals & guitar; Dave Knudson, guitar; Cory Murchy, bass; Erin Tate, drums; Alex Rose, synth & electronics (Matt Bayles did the keyboards up to Jan. 28/06, when he was replaced by Rose). I listen to all of their stuff often, and never get sick of it. I hum the tunes when I don’t have it on, and hear them in my head at random moments during the day; it’s so good, it sticks to you like a siamese-twin.

The Minus the Bear epoch began on Sept. 14, 2001 with the release of the EP This Is What I Know About Being Gigantic. It is a perfect example of one of those EPs which shows huge potential but doesn’t quite get there itself; it is a slightly jerky exploration of the sound that the band would not fully come into until the first proper album. There are seven tracks, but without any breaks in between it plays like one long song comprised of seven movements, and the whole thing revolves around three topics only: drinking, cigarettes and women. The first two lyrics of the opening track Hey, Wanna Throw Up? Get Me Naked highlight the good/not-quite-there-yet aspects of the album; the first line is “Let’s get the fuck out of here — it’s like a congregation” which I think is pretty cool, but it’s followed by one of the worst lines I’ve heard in any song: “From every drink’s glass drips — condensation.” Just the way Snider sings it, and rhyming ‘congregation’ with ‘condensation,’ is a little awkward. There’s nothing to complain about musically, however, as the whole things pulses and drives forward from beginning to end. All the little elements that will come to make up their distinctive sound, such as dabbling around with quick, off-beat harmonic-taps within a regular time-signature, or inserting a cool synth line to complement the bass, are all present, though in a somewhat premature form.
4pjekgij.jpgThen came the previously alluded to ‘first proper album where they came into their own,’ 2002’s Highly Refined Pirates (I’m skipping over the EP Bands Like It When You Yell Yar At Them since it was promo only and most of the songs appear on Pirates). Jamie stumbled upon it while searching through libraries on Napster and it wasn’t long before it was making its way around among our friends and acquaintances. This album begins the band’s ‘aquatic phase;’ from this point on, starting with the first line of the opening track Thanks For The Killer Game of Crisco Twister — “And then we all bought yachts” — 14 of the 26 songs with lyrics on this and two other albums — so 54% — are either about or mention water, swimming or boating. That’s a substantial enough number to warrant calling it an obsession, I would think; the women and drinking haven’t gone away either — if a song’s not about water, chances are it’s about one of those two things, or both. Of course, then there are the songs about water and drinking and women . . . you get the picture. I realize I may be giving the impression that the songs are all repetitive and sound the same — far from it. Each one is a glorious chunk of funkified alt-rock goodness, with all sorts of little bloops-and-bleeps and eighth-notes thrown in at all the right moments to give it flavour. Then there are the songs that completely stand on their own as unique both lyrically and musically, such as Absinthe Party at the Fly Honey Warehouse; it’s a marvelously cheeky song about being an American tourist in Paris. The opening line “hey, let’s cross the sea and get some culture” sets the tone, followed by quirky observations like “sitting on a park bench that’s older than my country,” and “two star hotel near St. Germain . . . where the stars don’t mean anything.” Then there’s the instrumental Andy Wolff, the best marching song ever written (you’ll understand what I mean when you hear it).

I saw them at El Mocambo back in August 2003 when they toured this album with We Ragazzi. It was a good show, but I imagine it was a letdown for them given that we all behaved like a typical Toronto crowd: standing back from the stage, seemingly aloof (even though we all listen very intently), nodding our heads and not really dancing, politely clapping (the peculiarities of the Toronto rock scene will have to be covered in a seperate post at some point). I wondered at the time if they’d ever come back.

The next release was the 2004 EP They Make Beer Commercials Like This and it absolutely blew me away. You crank it up and it kicks your ass right from the start with the pulsating beat of Fine + 2 pts, and the undulating basslines and guitar riffs of Let’s Play Clowns and Dog Park. Then comes probably my favourite Minus the Bear song, I’m Totally Not Down With Rob’s Alien, which is about a young boy swimming in the ocean while his parents are out running errands, and how he hopes they never come back so he can stay out there forever; everything about it, from its musical and lyrical construction to the completely irrelevant name, is the purest expression of that phase of the band’s career, and its most poignant.


At this point I should address the song titles. They make absolutely no sense whatsoever. A sampling: Potato Juice & Liquid Bread; You’re Some Sort of Big, Fat, Smart-Bug Aren’t You?; Monkey!!!Knife!!!Fight!!!; You Kill Bugs Good Man; Let’s Play Guitar in a Five Guitar Band; Hey! Is That A Ninja Up There?

I’ve figured out that Smart-Bug and Kill Bugs Good are lines from the movie Starship Troopers, so my theory is that all the titles are bits of dialogue from movies. Does anyone have any info on this? Please share if so.

They started to move in a slightly different direction with last year’s Menos El Oso; most obviously, the titles aren’t quite as nuts as before (one of them, Memphis & 53rd, is actually taken from a line in the song — how conventional!), and it seems like they tried to incorporate a spanish-guitar influence into the mix (which could also account for the spanish album title — by the way, do you get the joke there?). It’s subtly apparent in a few places, like in The Game Needed Me, Drilling, The Fix and Pachuca Sunrise. They’ve also changed oceans; before, it was the cool waters of the Pacific Northwest, and now the focus is on the warm basin of the Mediterranean. There’s even a song — El Torrente — that seems to be based on an episode of CSI. But the core of what makes the music so great is still there, and it’s still as enjoyable to listen to now as it was the first time.

Turns out I didn’t have to worry that they were turned off by Toronto’s apparent apathy — they came back in April and did a show at Lee’s Palace. Unfortunately I had to work late that night and couldn’t go; I’d be interested to hear from anyone who was there (here’s an interview they did with NOW magazine while they were in town).

So, I’ve talked enough, here are the music links. Listen to tracks from Menos El Oso at the official site and at MySpace.03971semaj


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