On an exceptionally chilly Monday night on the Near West Side of Chicago, a few hundred people gathered at House of Vans for a remarkably intimate set from The National. The band had flown into town from Europe for a special performance at the Obama Foundation Summit, but arrived a couple days early to give fans an extra special treat. Tickets to the show were being given out for free through an online lottery, and considering the 500 person capacity of the venue, it’s safe to assume that a lot more people entered than actually won. Those with luck on their side were treated to an engrossing and often aggressive performance that skewed towards the dark and political.
Tag: indie rock
Oh thank goodness Sleater-Kinney are back. It’s been 10 years since they chose to take an “indefinite hiatus,” and a whole lot of wild things have happened in that time frame. To quickly sum up, Corin Tucker started a family, then released two lovely yet quiet records fronting the Corin Tucker Band. Carrie Brownstein became something of a celebrity, grabbing attention for her acting chops in small films and TV shows, most notably Portlandia. She returned to music briefly in 2011 with a new band Wild Flag, which also included S-K drummer Janet Weiss. One album and one tour later, Wild Flag called it quits. Lastly, for her part Weiss has kept very busy playing in a variety of bands, most notably a stint with Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus as one of the Jicks. The reasons behind Sleater-Kinney’s 2005 break-up included Tucker’s decision to focus on raising a family and Brownstein’s serious health issues due to constant touring/recording, all of which seemed to imply a reunion would be unlikely. Yet maybe the time off was enough for the trio to recharge their batteries and begin to miss what they had together. After 10 years on and 10 years off, let’s hope that this new album No Cities to Love also marks the beginning of a new era for the band.
The primary concern with Sleater-Kinney, as with any band that reunites after a significant period away, is whether or not the new music will live up to the old catalog. 2005’s The Woods ultimately reflected a band going out at the top of their game, with everything prior building to that momentous record. A decade later, it’s very comforting to know that they haven’t forgotten how to write a song, nor have they mellowed with age. In some respects it’s like they never left, which is just about all you could ever ask for from Sleater-Kinney. Even John Goodmanson, who produced every one of the band’s previous records except for two, returns to the fold. Yet there are a few notable changes on No Cities to Love that are less apparent on the surface but become more obvious the closer you look. Brownstein has said in interviews that the trio began recording sessions for the album in 2012 with the intention of finding a new approach to the band, and by many measures that appears to be the case. They’ve never sounded cleaner or more focused. Clocking in at just over 30 minutes, the 10 tracks fly by without stopping for breath or even a ballad. The acidic and highly aggressive grit of their last couple records has been replaced with something a bit more accessible and mature, even though it’s by no means quieter or less vicious. Tucker’s vocals still show more power and range than most, Brownstein’s guitar solos remain vibrant and complex, while Weiss’s intricate rhythms keep everything held together quite nicely.
Perhaps the best way to get a sense of Sleater-Kinney’s more mature headspace across No Cities to Love is to take a microscope to their lyrics. These are some of the most personal songs the band has ever written, and that’s clear right from opener “Price Tag”. Acknowledging her status as a mother with a family, Tucker has harsh words about the recent economic recession and the challenges of trying to make a decent living wage when a lot of larger corporations are out to exploit their workers. Abuse of power is one of the primary themes of the record, and the biting “Fangless” along with the charging “No Anthems” address the issue in smart yet explicit ways. It’s also great to hear the trio sing about inter-band workings as well as their decade-long absence across multiple songs. The bouncy and fun “A New Wave” is about making your own path and not allowing the “venomous and thrilling” voices to change or shape you. They’ve got each other’s backs and will continue to do their own thing even if it drives them into obscurity.
Speaking of obscurity, the two main songs that deal with their hiatus show up right at the end of the album. Of the pair, “Hey Darling” is the most confessional, serving as a bit of a letter to fans. It also happens to be the one song on the record that sounds most like classic Sleater-Kinney. “Explanations are thin, but I feel it’s time/ You want to know where I’ve been for such a long time,” Tucker sings in the very first verse. What follows from there goes into how fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and sometimes even playing music for a room full of people can leave you feeling lonely. There’s not much subtext to be interpreted, except the idea that band life can become a bit of a drag if that’s all you do for a decade and sometimes you just need a break. “Fade” really plays that through to its fullest and most realized conclusion. “Oh what a price that we paid / My dearest nightmare, my conscience, the end,” wails Tucker over Brownstein’s heavy 70’s-style guitar riffs. There are dimming spotlights, a loss of a sense of self, and the question of whether or not the torture was ultimately worth it. The mere existence of No Cities to Love implies that the answer is yes. Considering how it all went down the first ten years, it’s probably best to assume things will be handled very differently from here on out. Who knows how long it might last, but as Tucker herself puts it, “If we are truly dancing our swan song, darling/ Shake it like never before.”
This is it! The final post of 2014 also marks the conclusion of Listmas and specifically this Top 50 Albums of 2014 countdown. It’s been a long road with plenty of bumps and delays along the way, but we’ve finally reached the peak of this imaginary mountain. At this point I’d like to give a special thank you to everyone who read something, clicked on something or downloaded something here at Faronheit over 2014. All of the content that’s posted here is for you to discover and enjoy, and I’m grateful for anyone who visits with that intention. It hasn’t been the best year for the site content-wise, but the hope is to generate more and return to form in 2015. Typically I’d tease a bunch of new features and exciting things in development for next year, but honestly most of that stuff either gains no traction or simply falls off never to be heard from again, so let’s just stick to the mantra of more everything and go from there.
So what can I say about these Top 10 Albums of 2014? Well, like the other entries in this list, there’s plenty of variety in terms of genre and style. It goes from weird to fun to noisy to sexy to relaxing to adventurous and back again. If you’ve been following me on Instagram these last few weeks, you’ve been given access to an early preview of the eclectic Top 5, though I can assure you that #6-10 are as equally exciting and wonderful. And hey, while I wasn’t able to write a lot of album and show reviews this year, some of the ones I did write about make an appearance here. Also worth mentioning: a particular pair of artists who are members of my Class of 2014 had an exceptionally great year, helping to continue to support that program. So I’m not going to spend any extra time talking this up. Please join me past the jump for the big reveal of my absolute favorite albums of the year.
If you’ve heard a Real Estate record before, very little may surprise you about their new one Atlas. It’s another collection of lackadaisical songs with weaving guitar melodies supplemented by jangly chords. This time however, everything gets alternately clearer and cloudier. How so? Well, to start this is the first Real Estate album that’s been cleanly produced and doesn’t have touches of lo-fi haze built into it. Matt Mondanile’s serpentine guitar work benefits most from this adjustment, glimmering like a freshly polished diamond. It’s most effective on tracks like “Primitive” and “Had to Hear,” when you could almost refer to those lead guitar parts as another voice that acts in tandem with Martin Courtney’s silky vocals. This is a band that has quietly become a well oiled machine, as they now know what works and how to get there with the least amount of trouble. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the lyrics on Atlas, which bring the dizzyingly fun highs of their previous records down to earth. Real Estate were the sort of band that wrote songs about spending time at the beach or bumming around suburbia with your friends on a summer day, but now the sky has become overcast and the temperature has taken a nosedive. “Our careless lifestyle, it was not so unwise,” Courtney sang on “Green Aisles” from the band’s 2011 record Days. As nice of a sentiment as that was, those days (so to speak) are over, and now it’s time to grow up and be a responsible adult. Going along with that are relationship struggles (“Talking Backwards”), crippling anxiety (“Crime”) and the realization that everything changes and we can never truly go back (“Past Lives”). Pairing those emotions with the band’s trademark sound proves to be a rather inspired combination, resulting in their catchiest and most mature album to date. It’s also their best, right down to the carefully structured sequencing. All of this shows that Real Estate have certainly learned a thing or two both personally and professionally over the last few years. Now it’s time for them to teach us, and that goes well beyond simple guitar tab videos.
It’s amazing to think about how far Katy Goodman has come in the last few years. Her work in Vivian Girls may have brought her to our attention, but her solo efforts as La Sera have allowed us to see a different side of her talents. Not everything she’s done in either project has been perfect, but it’s all been dynamic and interesting. “Losing to the Dark” is the first single off the third La Sera album Hour of the Dawn (out May 13th), and it does a fantastic job of blending some of the best elements from all of her previous work. The track sounds polished but with some nice touches of grit, which adds character. The distortion on the guitar helps a bit as well, and is insistent enough to make you want to turn the volume up just high enough that it might damage your hearing. That’s a good thing. Toss in the quick tempo and straightforward melody, and you get something fun, catchy and kinda perfect for driving. Before you know it, three minutes have passed, the chorus is stuck in your head, and you’re ready to hit the play button again. The world could use more songs like this.
Over the course of four albums, Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) has undergone a complete transformation. This fact is most evident in her album covers, the first two being self-portraits displaying what might best be described as wide-eyed innocence. Her new album is self-titled and once again features a photo of her on the cover, only this time her hair has gone from black to white and she sits atop a throne in an ornate dress, a look of power and control on her face. So too has her subject matter focus evolved from miserable suburban housewives and the curse of domesticity to powerful tyrants and society’s weaknesses when it comes to facing such leaders. In essence she’s been writing songs about the oppressed this entire time, but she expands to a greater and more epic scope with each new record. It’s similar to how her skills and sonic palette have grown in that time, as she always offers up something different to engage the listener and keep us guessing.
More so than anything she’s done previously, on St. Vincent Clark plays around with all sorts of digital sounds and effects. That’s clear right from the opening track “Rattlesnake,” where her guitar doesn’t even show up until well past the halfway mark. And while there’s plenty of examples of digital prevalence on this record (almost ironically, not so much on the song titled “Digital Witness”), it’s perhaps most obvious on the skittering, almost science fiction dystopian “Bring Me Your Loves.” What’s missing? Well, the ornate orchestration that permeated much of her first two records is all but gone, though 2011’s Strange Mercy certainly started that decline. Her buzz saw guitar solos have also largely started to take a back seat as well, though when they do show up as on “Huey Newton” they’re so completely distorted and compounded with effects you might not even recognize that’s the instrument you’re hearing.
In a sense, it can sometimes feel like a waste of talent if Clark isn’t using the greatest tool at her disposal on pretty much every track. What ultimately makes it okay is how she fills in those spaces previously occupied by guitar solos with other things and strong songwriting so you don’t notice nearly as much. Slightly more worrisome is how little St. Vincent has to share in terms of innovation and general evolution. The album is different because it emphasizes other elements and concepts, but none of it is anything we really haven’t heard from Clark in some different capacity. As the song title from her 2009 album Actor implies, what she’s giving us is “Just the Same But Brand New.” On the plus side though, absolutely none of the record feels stale or disappointing. It also couldn’t have come from any other artist. Annie Clark has reached a level of comfortable confidence that many other artists spend entire careers searching for. Whether this self-titled album marks the end of one chapter or the beginning of the next, it’s a defining moment for one of today’s smartest and most compelling rock stars.
The ship should have sailed on Vampire Weekend a long time ago. As in, the wave of backlash should have hit them right around the release of their second (and previous) album Contra in early 2010 and doomed them to a slow descent into obscurity. Yet every so often, an artist or band finds a way to rise above the fray and continue to persevere in spite of everything. Leave it to the guys with Ivy League educations to solve that puzzle and go from a debut with one hit single to a sequel with three. That’s not even mentioning all the commercial licensing they signed off on, continuing to build their “brand” of cardigans, boat shoes and balaclavas to a predominantly young, white audience. Perhaps most incredible through all this is that the quality of the music they’ve been making has dipped very little, if at all. What started out as a ferocious nod to Afropop and in many respects Paul Simon has since evolved into something darker and more considerate while still largely maintaining a giddy, indie pop vibe. Perhaps that’s the main reason why so many people love this band – they take challenging topics, difficult issues and high class living and make them into very on-the-level, non-pretentious, fun songs. One minute you’ll be bobbing your head and singing along to the chorus of a song, and the next minute you’ll hear a lyric that forces you to grab your dictionary to try and figure out exactly what frontman Ezra Koenig was getting at with that reference. You’re learning new things while you listen, and in a sense that raises the collective conscience and intelligence level for all involved. For whatever reason, Vampire Weekend are working to leave society better than when they found it, and perhaps that’s why it’s so difficult to find fault in just about everything they’re doing. Their new album Modern Vampires of the City is their strongest collection of tracks to date, but it’s also their darkest and most challenging, all of which can be seen as major positives.
Most bands like to throw a single out as the first track on their records, because it provides a nice gateway into the rest of the album. If they don’t go with a single, then it’s usually something upbeat and fun to at least put you in a good mood before moving forward. The last two Vampire Weekend albums have featured “Mansard Roof” and “Horchata” respectively, and both fit right into that traditional first track pattern. For Modern Vampires of the City, the opening song is “Obvious Bicycle,” a track that might best be described as a piano ballad. It’s not exactly a magnet of a song that sucks you in, and the lyrics make it even worse. “Oh you ought to spare your face the razor / Because no one’s gonna spare their time for you / You ought to spare the world your labor / It’s been twenty years and no one’s told the truth,” pretty much spell out deep depression and a complete mistrust of others. Yet there’s also stoicism and beauty in the way it’s composed, and the delicately harmonized, easy to remember chorus gives it a certain replay value you might not otherwise expect. The buzzy, pop-driven side of the band shows up starting with the single “Unbelievers,” certainly one of the album’s strongest moments and most addictive tracks. Yet it too features a rather dark take on things, emphasizing the idea that it can be tough today to truly figure out exactly who or what you believe in, religiously speaking and otherwise. “Girl you and I will die unbelievers, bound to the tracks of the train,” Koenig sings like there’s no escaping the fate that lies before him. There truly is no way of knowing if we’ve made the right decisions for our lives or our futures, which in many ways is crippling and could be considered a metaphorical freight train bearing down on us.
If you’re looking for a more “traditional” Vampire Weekend song, look no further than “Step,” which drops references to Angkor Wat, Dar es Salaam and Croesus amid sparkling harpsichords. Such challenging names and phrases are used in this case as more of a wink and a nod to their highly intelligent, “upper class” past rather than a legitimate attempt to go highbrow simply because they want to. The real deal behind this song is that the band borrows a couple of the main lines from the chorus from an unreleased track from the early ’90s called “Step to My Girl” by hip hop group Souls of Mischief. That track borrowed a saxophone melody from a 1972 song by Bread, which additionally Vampire Weekend also recreated with the harpsichord for this song. It’s fascinating how it all came together, and how the worlds of hip hop, smooth jazz and rock music from the past intersect via what sounds like a completely original and modern track. With that kind of history, maybe that is just a little more pretentious and challenging than it might otherwise appear. Similar things can be said for first single “Diane Young,” because while it is a whirlwind, roller coaster of a fun song complete with purposely goofy vocal modulations, there’s deeper meaning below the giddy surface. The subject matter is death, and the song title isn’t so much about a girl as it is, like the vocals, a slight modification of the more common expression, “dying young.” The lyrics support it, particularly with a reference to the Kennedy family, who are known for dying young. The music video also supports the idea, with a Last Supper-like scenario involving Jesus, who of course reportedly died at age 33.
Yet “Diane Young” also speaks to one of the overarching themes of Modern Vampires of the City, which is more about time running out on you than it is actual, physical death. Sure, death is certainly one of the possibilities of things to happen when the clock reaches zero, but it’s equally important to look at where the band is at in their personal lives. At the moment, they’re right at the border of what some might designate as “adulthood,” and all the “responsibilities” that come along with that. While there is no official hard line in the sand definition of what constitutes an adult, the ideas of getting married and starting a family certainly get wrapped up in that. In your own way, when you become an adult it marks the death of your youth, because there are new challenges and people to worry about and care for, taking away those times of freedom when you could do anything (…or anyone) you wanted to. Instead of staying out at some bar until 3 a.m. on a weeknight and showing up to work hungover a few hours later, you’re in bed by 11 and have to get up again at 4 because the baby is crying. The track “Don’t Lie” is actually all about that idea, and the quest to get in all the crazy and fun experiences you want to before making a full commitment to another person. “Young bloods can’t be settling down,” Koenig sings early on, but he’s also in love with a girl and feels just about ready to make that leap. The lines, “It’s the last time running through snow / Cause the fire can’t last and the winter’s cold,” speak to the need for love between two people, which should be fully appreciated, lest it be extinguished and you’re left alone in a harsh and loveless environment.
This path towards adulthood truly reaches its peak with the centerpiece of the record, “Hannah Hunt.” In many ways it seems like Vampire Weekend’s own maturity as a band gets unveiled in this track, like it’s something they’ve been purposely building towards for the last few years. Within this single ballad contains a multitude of sonic and textural innovations while the the lyrics and especially Koenig’s vocals overflow with emotion in a rousing and powerful way. The story line is a familiar one, in the sense that this could well be picking up on the lives of two characters we’ve spent time with previously in other Vampire Weekend songs on other albums. Here they’ve made the decision to escape from their own lives and hit the road to drive across the country in the hopes of starting over fresh. You may recognize this inclination as a more literal version of trying to outrun adulthood and other responsibilities that life hands us. Along the journey, this couple meets a gardener who talks about how plants move as they grow, and a man of faith who tries but fails to instill the narrator with a sense of personal accountability. Yet the real focus here is between these two people, our narrator and Hannah Hunt. Though their trip starts out promising enough, by the second verse of the song their relationship has grown cold, like the freezing beaches of Providence, Rhode Island which Hannah says she misses now that they’re on the opposite side of the country. And while the narrator wanders off to buy kindling for a fire, aka an attempt to get the flames of passion burning once more, Hannah chooses to burn a copy of the New York Times instead. The frustration builds, and eventually explodes outwards in the final 90 seconds of the song, going from a slow and meditative ballad to a soaring and gorgeous crescendo. Koenig’s voice follows suit, and he yells the chorus with such force you can almost hear tears rolling down his face: “If I can’t trust you then damn it, Hannah / There’s no future / There’s no answer / Though we live on the U.S. dollar / You and me, we got our own sense (cents?) of time.” It’s as harrowing as it is beautiful, and for those four minutes, that fictional clock through which we count the seconds and watch the hours stops completely.
While there are a few (perhaps arguably so, depending on personal interpretation) religious references in the first half of Modern Vampires of the City, it’s on the second half of the record where religion really come into topical focus. “I took your counsel and came to ruin / Leave me to myself, leave me to myself,” Koenig gripes at the start of “Everlasting Arms.” The song title itself alludes to the old hymn “Leaning on Everlasting Arms,” which is about the Day of Judgment. In his own way, Koenig spends the song passing judgment on God, trying to break off that relationship because it has caused him nothing but pain and suffering. An even greater indictment shows up on “Worship You,” which asks whether or not God deserves the love and praise given to him around the globe. There are references made to God’s “red right hand,” which play on the phrase of getting caught red-handed, implying guilt and wrongdoing. There’s also a political angle to the track, primarily dealing with the Middle East and Israel and the supposed protection offered to the Holy Land. “Finger Back” deals with similar issues, though the focus in this case is more on the cycle of violence in the region and how religion is the main reason for many conflicts. That also ties into the sharply depressing but stylistically intriguing penultimate track “Hudson,” which uses the historical context of explorer Henry Hudson and his death as a springboard to envision a post-apocalyptic New York hellscape in the years following the nuclear holocaust that is World War III.
Looking solely at the lyrics on Modern Vampires of the City and attempting to delve into the meanings and intentions behind the songs can make everything seem like a truly depressing march through sludge. The themes are dark and unpleasant, from the ticking clock of youth and life running towards its ultimate finish to the anger towards God and religion, and you might expect the music itself to match those tones. Yet that’s not the case by any means. The band has come a long way from their debut, but they haven’t lost their ability to write compelling melodies and hooks that grab your ear and refuse to let go. Listen to this album enough and you’ll find that a different track stands out each time, even some of the slower ones like “Ya Hey” and “Step” will give you a reason to keep coming back for more. A very lyrically bleak song like “Finger Back” is only dark and depressing if you can fully comprehend what’s being sung about, and Koenig’s rapid fire vocal delivery paired with a bouncy melody seem to suggest upbeat pop more than anything else. And that’s really the crux of this record as a whole: it deals with a lot of heavy issues, but always with a little wink and a nod to let you know that it’s not all bad. That sense of relatability and inclusiveness which gets developed while also ushering in a new found maturity makes this Vampire Weekend’s strongest effort to date. For a band that spends so much time on this record worrying about getting older and the proverbial deaths that go along with it, there’s a terrific amount of irony in the fact that they’re only getting better with age. It’s certainly something most other artists should look at with envy.
Let’s start with an introduction. If you’re not relatively familiar with Chicago’s local music scene, the band Minor Characters may not have ever registered on your radar. Their ultimate plan is world domination, but as with any band or person that ever had the drive to pick up and play an instrument, we’ve all got to start somewhere. In the case of Minor Characters, they first got together at the end of 2010 and have been working hard to pay their dues ever since. They play as many live shows as possible, and through that avenue have built up something of a cult following in Chicago’s local scene. That hard work has paid off in other ways too, which is probably why they recently placed third in The Deli Magazine’s poll of Chicago Emerging Artists for 2012. But the reach of Minor Characters does extend beyond the city of Chicago, as they’ve done a fair amount of touring out of town and will be making their way to SXSW in March to hopefully introduce themselves to crowds eager to hear what they’ve got to offer. Of course everyone is also welcome to discover them via their self-titled EP that was released in late 2011. Five tracks isn’t exactly the largest or best catalogue, but really those songs served as a great foundation upon which to build from. As the old saying goes, better quality than quantity. So that was a great start for the band, but they’re just getting warmed up. Their second EP Heal Me, Healing Times looks to expand upon what they’ve already done and showcase the great strides they’ve made in the last year or so.
It’s always interesting to see how bands describe themselves in press materials. Minor Characters say that they are influenced by 60’s folk, The Beatles and Radiohead. If you’re a music fanatic, that’s sort of like the holy trio of influences, and most artists would kill just to be mentioned in the same breath. But here’s the thing: just because you’re inspired by another band or genre doesn’t mean you have to conform to or sound like it. Sometimes it’s just nice to have that knowledge base going in, because if a band says they’re inspired by Nickelback and Creed, that might raise a red flag before you hear a single note. When it comes to Minor Characters, perhaps it’s best to say that they’re a mobius strip of different sounds that come together to form something that feels entirely familiar yet unique at the same time. For example, their guitars on a track like “Sun Trials” feel tuned to the frequency of Grizzly Bear, but the melody itself doesn’t quite have the same multi-instrumental layers or stark stoicism to make a true match. That’s not a bad thing, as the chorus soars and aches with emotion and the band makes some smart, creative choices when it comes to overall structure and lyrics. If you listen closely in the final minute of the song, a high-pitched, static drone slides into the background that nearly recalls the deflated ending of Radiohead’s “Karma Police” but in a much more subtle fashion. There’s also a few carefully picked notes in the verses of “Aurora Borealis” that bear an eerie resemblance to Radiohead’s “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” though maybe that’s more the result of transference after reading the band’s bio. The opening title track can leave the taste of Real Estate in your mouth thanks to its lazy summer day start before getting a strong tempo infusion and becoming a rather addictive indie pop song. Between that and the heartbreaking piano ballad “Expatriates” that closes out the short set, the band’s diverse array of talents are well displayed here.
Enjoyable and compelling as the Heal Me, Healing Times EP might be, there are a couple of small issues with it that need addressing. First and foremost is the length. You get four songs and a total run time of around 17 minutes, which really passes by in a flash. You’re left wanting more, and while that’s always a good thing, it’s also frustrating because it seems like this band is ready to take the plunge and go for the full LP. There are likely reasons why they’re holding off on it, perhaps for financial reasons or to serve as a stopgap as they consider signing to a label. But beyond the EP’s brevity, there are moments on it that feel just a little restrained or held back from something greater. Right now Minor Characters are striking a precious balance between a very normalized, pop-driven world and off-the-charts experimentation. The songs are clean cut and catchy enough to satisfy large audiences, but the rather literary and expository lyrics paired with a few strange effects add just enough dissonance to give you a glimpse into a different dimension. Somewhere down the line, be it months or a year or two from now, they’re probably going to have to fully commit to which direction they want to take. One path brings mainstream success and money but little critical acclaim, while the other path is the more challenging but brings gravitas and integrity to their music. If they’re lucky and can do it right, maybe they can have both. Either way, they’re a band with a wealth of talent worthy of much bigger and better things than where they’re currently at. The Heal Me, Healing Times EP is proof of that, building upon their earlier material and setting them apart from the hundreds of other Chicago bands trying to reach that next great peak. To put it another way, Minor Characters are finally ready to step out of the background and into the spotlight.
Stream the entire Heal Me, Healing Times EP
And now, a brief evolutionary history of Minus the Bear. When they first emerged in the early ’00s, they were a goofy math rock band whose twisted finger tapping guitar style and oft-hilarious song titles were considered endearing. On 2005’s Menos El Oso, they matured to the point where their goofy song titles and lighthearted bounce were replaced with sincerity and precision. Though it didn’t always feel right, people did start to treat the band with more respect, which they took and ran with. 2007’s Planet of Ice was a calmer attempt to broaden their sound with more prog-rock elements and dashes of electronics. It was beautiful but failed to fully engage the listener. That only got worse in 2010 with Omni, a synth-heavy record that moved away from their signature guitar sound in favor of something that sounded overproduced and an attempt at commercial success. Whether or not the strategy worked is debatable, because while their record sales went up, they were also signed to a better label with a better promotional team.
After four full-lengths of varying quality, Minus the Bear seem to have settled down on their fifth record Infinity Overhead. The dominant synths of Omni have all but vanished, as have some of the more atmospheric and progressive pieces of Planet of Ice. Their guitars are back in full force, and the finger tapping math rock style returns too, though with a bit less emphasis than some of their earlier material. Listen closely to “Toska” and “Cold Company” for some of the most impressive instrumental work they’ve ever done. That you have to listen closely at all is evidence of how Minus the Bear have changed over the course of their career. They’re in no way returning to their carefree and goofy early days, and whether or not you view that as a good thing, it makes their music more difficult to penetrate.
There are rewards to be found in listening to Infinity Overhead several times as the songs slowly begin to grow on you. “Lies and Eyes” and “Diamond Lightning” in particular start to stand out the longer you live with them. They’re also two tracks that probably best blend the various elements and styles the band has adopted over the last decade, which is in a sense a good way of hearing exactly how they’ve grown. The retrospective aspect is nice, but you also come to realize that this record doesn’t venture any place new. Say what you will about Omni, but at least that was one of Minus the Bear’s attempts to shake things up a little.
To think that they’re sitting in a stalled out vehicle here is a little disappointing, as are most of the tracks on the album, most of which have all the distinctiveness of wallpaper. Moreover, the band simply sounds bored most of the time, or at least are approaching these songs with such extreme seriousness that they’re suffocated by it. If they want to get all stonefaced about their music, there needs to be passion in making it that seeps through to the listener. Infinity Overhead is more often than not a joyless business transaction, and coming from a band that once created vital songs with hilarious titles like “Thanks For The Killer Game of Crisco Twister” and “Just Kickin’ It Like a Wild Donkey,” that’s perhaps most disappointing of all.