Man for man, that’s the band, and the basic elements of Minus the Bear. For roughly six years and just as many studio releases, the members of Minus the Bear have remained remarkably consistent in their style and methodology. The band’s 2001 debut EP, This is What I Know About Being Gigantic, set the tone for their future albums with its intriguing electronic effects, low-key vocal work, splashy percussion, and captivating guitar arpeggios. Similarly, odd song titles like “Hey, Wanna Throw Up? Get Me Naked” and “Just Kickin’ It Like a Wild Donkey” foreshadowed the tongue-in-cheekiness of MtB’s 2002 full-length, Highly Refined Pirates, which featured such bizarre yet endearing cuts as “Monkey!!! Knife!!! Fight!!!” and “I Lost All My Money at the Cock Fights.” Ditto for in-between-er EPs like Bands Like It When You Yell “YAR!” at Them (surprisingly, doing so in a live setting gets no discernible response from Snider & co.) and They Make Beer Commercials Like This, which provided the obliquely Starship Troopers-inspired “You’re Some Kind of Big, Fat, Smart-bug, Aren’t You?” and the reflective “I’m Totally Not Down With Rob’s Alien.”
Bizarrely comedic album and song titles aside, Minus the Bear is not a “funny” band. In fact, you could even consider them downright serious, even sombre at times. Live banter is slim to nonexistent, and the inside jokes that most likely inspired the titular whimsy of their early releases have since been left to the wayside. Beginning with They Make Beer Commercials Like This and continuing into 2005’s Menos el Oso, Minus the Bear has slowly but surely begun to slough off the quirky dross of their earlier efforts. Firstly, they’ve dropped the instrumental segue tracks that littered This is What I Know About Being Gigantic and Highly Refined Pirates; secondly, they’ve disavowed their affections for ironic song titles and pop-cultural references. Neither could be considered a great loss—especially in the case of the former, as the instrumental segues seem to have been absorbed into Minus the Bear’s lyrical songs rather than outright abandoned.
With the release of their sixth studio album (and third full-length), Planet of Ice, Jake Snider & co. have tweaked and tightened their sound and style even further. Generally speaking, Planet of Ice is cleaner and far more polished than Minus the Bear’s earlier albums, and thanks are due in no small part to former MtB member Matt Bayles, who helped to produce and mix the album.
In an interesting visual change, Planet of Ice eschews the busy, somewhat chaotic pop-art cover designs of previous MtB offerings. Rather than continue with Photoshop collages of doctored images, Dave Knudson (guitar virtuoso by night, graphic artist by day) has adopted a minimalist mantra of “less is more.” Specifically: nearly untouched (and professionally-taken) photos, negative space, simplified typography, and an almost-monochromatic colour palette of black, white, and silver, with a darkish magenta (~CMYK: 56-96-28-11) for the occasional song title.
But I digress. Hammer-ons, humour, and aesthetic inclinations aside, the one thing that you need to know about Minus the Bear is that their songs are scenarios, not stories. Stories have characters—names, faces, visual descriptors and specific details that make their occupants unique individuals with personalities and histories. Scenarios, on the other hand, are merely plots with ciphers—soulless homunculi, blank and replaceable, who traipse along from Point A to Point B without grace or art. Imagine a book that is merely an account of actions and events without any time or effort given to motive or character development. Manner is irrelevant, meaning is inconsequential; things happen, and then they stop happening—that’s it.
With few exceptions, such barebones storytelling (if I may call it such) is the backbone of Minus the Bear guitarist/vocalist Jake Snider’s lyrical work. Rarely does Snider stray beyond the safe anonymity of vaguely-related party hook-ups, fuzzy recollections of past relationships, dreamtime reveries, or off-center snapshots taken from the Flickr account of John Everyman. His lyrics are little more than heavily self-edited anecdotes told in the first person, littered with impersonal pronouns (typically, “you,” “she,” and “her”) and denuded of any incriminating (or interesting) details. Sure, you could attribute the missing facts to all of the beer, wine, and champagne that Snider cannot help but include in his songwriting. Not to mention all of the imbibing, smoking, and ingesting of implicitly narcotic substances (Ativin aside, they are rarely specific, let alone artistically allusive) that would doubtless blur one’s memory ‘til naught was left but ill-fitting fragments extracted from a post-party crime scene of empty bottles and overflowing ashtrays.
As such, the bland sense of universality that rushes in to fill the void left by Snider’s lyrical blackouts inevitably feels cheap, and at times mass-produced. High poetry this is most certainly not. Then again, if you know Minus the Bear, the lyrics are not why you’re listening in the first place.
Really, it’s all about the instrumental point-counterpoint-counter-counterpoint between Snider, Knudson, Murchy, Tate, and Rose (or Bayles, depending on the album). As with previous MtB releases, Planet of Ice thrives on the complex rhythmic showdown between Knudson’s tap-happy fretwork, Snider’s vocal hooks, Murchy and Tate’s beats, and Rose/Bayle’s knob-tweaking and button-pushing. Granted, Snider’s oft-affected voice leads the way through tracks like “Burying Luck” and “Ice Monster,” but the lyrics are undoubtedly secondary to the riffs and rhythms, notwithstanding the occasional catchy chorus.
Current single/video “Knights” is a perfect example of the MtB formula: affected and looped guitar noodling, doubled croons, ringing riffs, upbeat percussion, subdued basslines, and countless studio tweaks and twists. The premise of the song? Snider owes money to an unnamed woman; she wants her due, but he’s “a little light today, / but tomorrow, oh tomorrow…” Next, commence singing a catchy chorus employing the word “usury”… okay, points for the Colin Meloy-level vocabulary, even if it is essentially wrapping paper for an empty box.
The remainder of Planet of Ice—“White Mystery,” “Dr. L’Ling” (a vague reference to “Drilling” off Menos el Oso?), “Part 2,” “Throwin’ Shapes,” “When We Escape,” “Double Vision Quest,” and “Lotus”—takes up the MtB mantel of casual anonymity. No names, no connections, only vague accounts of disposable barroom romance. As such, the questions remain: who are these women? Why is Snider writing songs about them? And, is it just me, or is Snider beginning to sound like a mopey frat boy who cannot help but recount his latest conquests? Planet of Ice, indeed—talk about cold.
Hrm… well, at least the riffs are hot.
Audio Reviews (August 23rd, 2007)
Tags: audio, review, minus the bear, planet of ice, suicide squeeze records