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Audio Reviews
by Minus the Bear
Dangerbird (2010)
On an average day, the digital megalopolis of Facebook amounts to little more than a time-consuming distraction—a bottomless pit into which millions of people consign countless hours of their waking day.

Don’t get me wrong, Facebook is not an inherently negative service. It has near-limitless potential as an information-sharing tool, and operates as a wondrous mix of instant messenger, bulletin board, blog, forum, photo/video host, Tweet and RSS feed, and community-oriented game room, all of which optimally help to better connect the individual user with just about everyone and everything s/he finds interesting and worthwhile. Still, one obvious problem is that Facebook, as a one-stop communications hub, often becomes mired in its own sense of all-encompassing universality: it strives to be everything for everyone, and the ensuing spam-like information overload inevitably becomes both a nuisance to the regular user and a harsh deterrent for the social-networking-curious. If not handled properly—and filtered well—it’s simply too much to take in.

While Facebook may contain a whole lot of offal, it’s not always awful. In spite of its inherent problems, I respect the service for its ability to keep people connected regardless of time and distance, as well as for its eerie skill in parsing countless points of user-provided data and organizing seemingly unrelated bits of information according to expressed interests and on-site browsing and communication habits. Seriously, there’s some crazy black magic going on with how Facebook’s algorithms push relevant content to a given user’s front page.

To wit: In late April, an old college friend and fellow music enthusiast—who lives halfway around the globe, and with whom I have not corresponded in years—posted the simple three word, nine character status update “OMG MTB WOW”. Upon reading this some two hours and thirteen time zones later, I knew enough to check the website of Seattle alt-rock outfit Minus the Bear, whereat I was greeted with a link to SoCal radio station KCRW’s on-demand, pre-release stream of the band’s latest album (and fourth full-length), OMNI. A link which I subsequently shared via Facebook, and which then served as a launching point for a rather in-depth (and multi-part) comment-conversation with another remote college friend (and fellow newsprint veteran) about the quality and credibility of Minus the Bear’s latest work.

And now, here you are, reading this introduction, possibly by way of a link or post you found on Facebook. In case there was any lingering doubt, the future is now, and it knows what you like—and how to use your friends to subtly encourage you to buy things.

But, as invasive and impersonal as Facebook’s marketing-friendly data-mining can seem—most people are understandably creeped out by the notion that some remote entity knows so much about them without actually knowing them—this whole arm’s-length interpersonal interaction and endless consumption of relative strangers’ minutiae is what draws people to social-networking in the first place. It’s a way of staying in touch while remaining at a safe distance, of having human interaction without the human element.

It may seem like a roundabout way of getting to the point, but, in my mind, Minus the Bear epitomizes this love/hate relationship with the increasingly connected yet starkly impersonal relationships of the Information Age. Not to conflate the band with social-networking-as-concept, but, as with the oft-surreal and vacuous “sharing”, “liking”, and “commenting” of Facebook, there is something essential, something immediate, something authentically human, missing from the songs of Minus the Bear.

This is not to say that bandmates Jake Snider, Dave Knudson, Erin Tate, Cory Murchy, and Alex Rose are inept performers, let alone unaccomplished musicians. Hardly—since the 2001 release of Minus the Bear’s debut EP, This is What I know About Being Gigantic, the electronics-aided, prog-influenced, guitar-noodling quintet has proven itself to be capable of crafting tunes that are remarkably intricate, infectiously groove-worthy, and full to the brim with lush textures, shifting rhythms, and arresting melodies. Dave Knudson’s tapped, layered, and oft-looped and -affected guitar antics intertwine with frontman Jake Snider’s own six-string riffs to form the band’s melodic center. Drummer Erin Tate and bassist Cory Murchy man the low end with taut percussion and an occasionally fuzzy four-string punch, while keyboardist and backing vocalist Alex Rose scatters subtle synth and sundry ‘spherics overtop the lot (a job previously performed by Seattle-based record producer Matt Bayles).

Musically, it’s a great combination that draws inspiration from the likes of shoegaze, electro, and math-rock, and past non-vocal interludes and inter-song segues like “Potato Juice & Liquid Bread” off This is What I Know… and “Andy Wolff” off Minus the Bear’s 2002 debut full-length Highly Refined Pirates have demonstrated Snider & co.’s ability to craft intriguing tunes with plenty of ambiance even in the absence of a lyrical narrative.

Yet it’s a mix that regularly favours instrumental dynamism and technical ability over worthwhile lyrical content and authentic emotional investment. More so even than 2007’s underwhelming Planet of Ice, OMNI finds lead singer Jake Snider preoccupied with vague recollections of days, nights, and early mornings spent wine-buzzed and/or powder-nosed, frequently while also getting his lonesome musician freak on with a number of nameless women. As such, OMNI serves up a near-constant stream of anonymous sex and pseudo-romantic encounters kept safely at arm’s length—inherently private affairs which Snider perfunctorily shares like so many out-of-focus smartphone snapshots and pithy status updates, digital detritus divorced from context and devoid of any greater purpose than as a chronicle of the exchange of bodily fluids.

Admittedly, all this hedonism and debauchery might be moderately entertaining (and vicariously titillating) if it wasn’t so par for the course, and blandly presented at that. Like a modern-day Casanova, Snider has been recounting his party-hard ways and ever-anonymous conquests in album after EP after album for nearly a decade. And yet, despite dealing chiefly with the pleasures of the flesh, Snider’s lyrics as of late have near-always come across as world-weary and blasé rather than celebratory and passionate. For a man who seems to be perpetually tripping the light fantastic with all manner of controlled substances and nubile partners, one would think that Snider could do a little more to avoid sounding so positively bored.

While I am loathe to place the blame for Minus the Bear’s less-than-satisfactory songwriting solely at Snider’s feet, it is nothing less than the oft-impersonal nature of his lyrics and the emotional distance in his vocal delivery that muck up otherwise-tight tracks like lead-off video-single “My Time”, particularly when the subject matter is of such an intimate nature. Honestly, if Snider feels the need to sing about being all up in his lady’s business, he could at least do us (and her) the courtesy of floating better lines than “You taste like sweet wine… You’re holding on to me like an old love you know every inch of. When I feel you start to go, I’ll take it slow, until your body’s saying more”. Failing that, Snider could embrace his Don Juanism and sing with some semblance of playful, sultry, in-the-moment enthusiasm—y’know, something to better suit the upscale porn-funk groove of Rose’s tittering synth, Knudson’s hyper-affected guitar, Murchy’s pulsing bass, and Tate’s laid-back percussion. Stop killing the mood and just get into it, yeah?

“Summer Angel” fares a little bit better insofar as Snider actually provides a vignette prior to the inevitable naughty bits, dwelling for a while on a moonlit garden stroll before segueing into an al fresco session with his ever-anonymous (and thereby interchangeable) lady companion. Granted, Rose’s scattershot synth effects and Knudson’s bright notes, bends, and talk box riffs provide a nice high end to offset Tate and Murchy’s low-and-heavy beats, but they’re still weighed down by Snider’s stilted attempts at lyrical erotica.

“Secret Country” eschews the blunt sexuality of its forebears in favour of a hazy, dreamlike tête-à-tête, its lightly-tapped hi-hat, processed bass, quick-riffing guitar, and echoing synth supporting a caught-in-the-rain aftermath to the evening tryst of “Summer Angel”. Picking up on the lost-in-the-moment romantic-escapist sentiments of “Secret Country”, “Hold Me Down” tosses out its transient lover’s none-too-subtle request for a one-night stand with quiet earnestness. “I’m in the wind, I am in the wind, and if I end up in your arms will you help me stay?” pleas Snider, “I want your comfort for the evening. I need to pause and get my head. Hold me down, baby, or the wind will catch me out again.” The damn thing is that the muted guitar, synth-tinged bridge, and mantric “I’m giving you up, I’m giving you up, I’m giving you up, again” leading into the wailing riffs of the final chorus are almost good enough to keep you from noticing how thin the song (if not the music behind it) truly is.

There comes a point when, midway through OMNI’s collected accounts of languor and satyriasis, you honestly have to wonder how often Snider’s lyrical wiles work, and whether—as in the ringing guitar, brassy percussion, spacey synth, and “I’m into you” avowals of “Excuses”—his songs, resembling as they do a cross between a Penthouse letter and a pickup line, are actually written with a certain someone in mind, or if they are simply intended as sonic bait for the show-going catch of the day. And, if the latter is the case, how regularly do Dave, Erin, Cory, and Al have to track ol’ Jake down after a night’s performance.

Blending Knudson’s funk-as-a-duck riffs with 8-bit blips and head-bobbing rhythms, “The Thief” plays up the roguery and womanizing with allusions to an on-again/off-again continental romance with a wealthy heiress who Snider promise to “steal” and “display” like a pearl or a diamond (read: like an object). And if you think that’s high-class and forward-thinking, just wait ‘til the blue notes and loops of “Into the Mirror” regale you with a tale of powder-snuffling and multi-session mid-party freakiness in an unlocked bathroom—a song that starts out tawdry and becomes just plain awkward when guest vocalist Rachel Flotard (of Seattle power-pop act Visqueen) attempts to lend some pathos to Snider’s hypersexualized musings. And, just when you thought it couldn’t get any sketchier, double that reflective restroom sex down with the repetitive, coke-fueled discotheque-destined mess of “Animal Backwards”.

Mercifully, “Dayglow Vista Rd” hearkens back to older Minus the Bear cuts like “Pantsuit… Uggghhh”, “Monkey!!! Knife!!! Fight!!!”, “Drilling”, “Pachuca Sunrise”, and “Hooray”—songs that handled youthful pleasure-seeking and near-constant inebriation with a sense of wonder, urgency, and (obviously titular) whimsy, their all-night parties having (slightly) more to do with drunken camaraderie and personal connections than foreplay for Snider’s casual sex romps. And, of course, Minus the Bear’s technical prowess shines as brightly in “Dayglow Vista Rd” as the high-and-happy party fellows tripping the night away with the old path ghosts: Knudson and Snider’s tapped-and-picked guitar interplay cuts as angularly as ever, Murchy’s rumbling riffs and Tate’s crashing brass and pounding skins quick-shift with incredible dexterity, and Rose tops the lot off with shots of space-age synth sent whirling, twisting, and whooshing through the mix.

In stark contrast to the empty first-(im)person(al) encounters which occupy the rest of OMNI, the Omnichord-aided synthetic swells of album-ender “Fooled by the Night” betray something rather near to guilt. Lacing his wine-addled lines with no small amount of self-immolating jealousy, Snider’s echoing “freeze frame vision” conjures up imagined scenes of an unnamed lover, left behind and straying into the arms of another man. It’s a surprisingly sentimental send-off from a self-styled lothario, and "Fooled by the Night" manages, however belatedly, to cast OMNI’s many trysts in a somewhat sympathetic light as the desperate attempts of a lonely man to fill a rather glaring void. While not too late to redeem Snider as a quasi-autobiographical lyricist, it’s still too little to save OMNI from being best-remembered as a collection of halfhearted sex grooves. Great tunes, yeah, but there’s something missing here—a fact of which Snider would seem to be all too well-aware.
Posted by: Tom Körp

Audio Reviews (May 20th, 2010)

Tags: audio, reviews, minus the bear, omni, dangerbird