For those of you who’ve not heard the humble math rock beginnings of Minus the Bear, I strongly encourage you to go out and find a copy of their debut album “Highly Refined Pirates” as soon as possible. Between that and the EPs “This Is What I Know About Being Gigantic”, “Bands Like It When You Yell ‘Yar!’ At Them” and “They Make Beer Commercials Like This”, Minus the Bear had built their early career on making incredibly catchy, quirky, and subversive rock songs that sounded little like other bands around at the time. Throw in silly song titles like “Monkey!!! Knife!!! Fight!!!” and “I Lost All My Money at the Cock Fights” and suddenly you’ve got a really cool band that also clearly has a sense of humor. Those were the years of 2001-2004, when I was so impressed with the band that they quickly became one of my favorite new indie acts. Then 2005 arrived, and my excitement knew no bounds upon the release of their sophmore album “Menos El Oso”. But the funny song titles had disappeared, and with them a band that was far more serious about what they were doing. Playtime was over, and now they were making math rock with purpose and laser-like focus. By that same token, the album was excellent but not as catchy as its predecessor, and when I saw the band live for the first time the experience was marred by an excessively drunk guy next to me who eventually threw a bottle at the stage. 2007’s “Planet of Ice” pulled me in two different directions as I finally accepted the quirky and fun days of old were gone forever, but suddenly the band shifted their direction yet again and moved away from their math rock past into something more psychedelic and synth-dominant. Another good record, but once again I was bothered by the band’s inability to commit to a style and stick with it for more than one album. And despite their knack for writing compelling songs, their once unique sound had turned into an imitation of other, more classic bands. Now with a new album and record label in tow, Minus the Bear’s new album “Omni” is out this week, and surprise surprise, they’re once again experiencing another shift in their sonic palette.
When recording “Omni”, Minus the Bear were without a record label. They parted ways with Suicide Squeeze, the label they had been with from the very beginning. To help generate interest in their new recordings, they released the song “Into the Mirror”, which apparently earned them some attention from Dangerbird Records, who they signed with in February. The song was an early indicator of the stylistic shift that “Omni” would offer: a mid-tempo, slickly produced track that was extremely synth-heavy yet still pretty good overall. It was promising in the idea that the new record could be their most accessible and danceable yet, something that the pre-release single “My Time” backed up with flying colors. I may still be upset with the band for abandoning their math rock roots, but the early indicators were that at least the new stuff was going to be compelling in one form or another. Here’s the thing though: compelling as it might be, “Omni” as a whole comes across as a somewhat desperate attempt at currying favor with a mainstream audience. Completely overproduced is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the album. This thing has so much polish that the song title “Into the Mirror” might as well describe exactly how it sounds. The record is so clean I can hear my own reflection in it. Then throw in, outside of the two aforementioned singles, that after a half dozen times through I can’t mentally recall what any of the other songs sound like, and we’ve got problems. “Excuses”, something that describes what the band may be making after what’s sure to be a collection of negative reviews, is perhaps the only other song on the album I have a moderate liking for. Don’t even get me started on the lyrics either, which treats sex, drugs and rock n’ roll like it’s a new concept yet to be explored in song.
Despite my many complaints, I still find myself thinking that “Omni” isn’t a horrible album. Instead, consider this review like a parent chastising a child for telling a white lie: you’re upset and you may yell at them, but in the end what they did wasn’t THAT bad and you still love them anyways. The record may be overproduced and unmemorable, but there are no songs that I actively dislike. Inoffensive and easy is the name of the game, and Minus the Bear do it with pluck and dignity. Yes, they’re a bland shell of what they once were, but if that translates to a wider audience and higher record sales, more power to ’em. For the sake of my own sanity I can’t recommend that you buy “Omni”, but if you showed me a copy in your record collection I wouldn’t yell at you for it. The salad days of my love for Minus the Bear may be quickly going by the wayside, but I’m comforted by the idea that they might find solace in the arms of a teenage kid who doesn’t know any better. “Omni” is a risk that this band needed to take, and rest assured should they eventually choose to return to their sound of old, I’ll be waiting for them with open arms. Thanks for that killer game of Crisco Twister, guys.
Minus the Bear – Into the Mirror (mediafire)