Review: Bear Colony – “Soft Eyes”

November 14, 2012 1 comment

Wow.  What else did you expect me to say?

Am I biased?  Yes.  Am I rooting for greatness?  Of course.  But you know what this is.  You’ve been here too.

I mean, you remember that album, right?  You know which one I’m talking about.  The one you had circled on your calendar when it was announced three years ago.  And then, delays.  Production, artistic, life.  Everything went on regardless, and your clothes got a little more stained, and you got a little more politically-jaded, a little more familiar with that cute girl in the corner cubicle, a little less likely to remember your Homecoming King.  But in all this time, this spectrum where everyone else forgot or moved on, you still doubled back to that dusty calendar and checked every message board, every Twitter handle, every Facebook page, for some status update.  A ray of developmental hope, improbably clawing through clouds that had long since moved on to thunderrumbles and the electric promise of that next great thing.

But your great thing was back in 2006, and here you are, older, part of you still left back wondering when that chord would ever strike again.  Because it meant a lot, that music.  The memories may have faded, sure, but something about those notes stirred you and you just knew.  Maybe it’s a bit melodramatic to call it an awakening, but it’s an understanding that only comes from inside, and only you can know, a radiance only awakened by those familiar beats that take root in your skull and dropkick your synapses back to the noise-cancelling truth of one thing guaranteed to be good.  Always so good.

That’s a lot of flowery setup for me to introduce Bear Colony as my last great thing, and almighty pronouns know I fucked up just about every square inch of that introduction by leaving out the band’s name.  But you need to understand that I come into this review with a certain connection, and criticism isn’t always as easy as a detached first listen or a fresh set of ears.  Sometimes, we just want to fall in love, no matter what mom tells us.

And goddamn if I didn’t fall in love again yesterday with Bear Colony’s sophomore effort, Soft Eyes.

Soft Eyes follows up on the Arkansas-based band’s debut album, We Came Here to Die, which—and I’ve officially sealed this fact in my personal trivia game by now—more or less got me through my freshman year of college.  I was going through some rough times, I was in a terrible living situation, and mostly, I wasn’t happy.  All I had were my headphones and a distant notion that things get better.  Bear Colony was my life support.

But when you owe an artist your day-to-day sustenance, how can you objectively review anything after the fact?

I don’t know that you can.  I just know that you can talk about how that music makes you feel, and maybe someone else out there agrees.

Soft Eyes was many years in the making, always elusive in its finality, but certainly always promised.  There was a gorgeous little EP in the interim by the name of I, The Body, which did more with two songs than most bands do with an entire album, but mostly just blog posts, artwork and unmastered teasers to fill the gap.  I don’t paint that as a disservice to fans, of course, because I’m not sure any band has ever been as honest about the creative process as Bear Colony.  Art takes time.  Owning your craft, making that one little CD case you poured your heart into, rarely comes with a deadline.

It’s done when it feels done.  It’s done when it sounds done.

So, some six years after the debut effort, here I am, staring at Soft Eyes.  Part of me is afraid to hit ‘play’.  I know what time has done to half the people I know.  Could it be the same for those looped melodies that always unfailingly provided the best kind of escape this side of a virgin syringe?

Album-opener “We Don’t Know Harm I”—yes, it’s the first of a two-parter that concludes on track 12—sets the table for something vastly different from Bear Colony’s electronica-steeped debut, slowing the pace to offer hopeful postmortem musings to sharp cymbal crashes and a steady strumming.

This track bleeds wonderfully into one of the album’s quieter successes, “Go Home to Something”, which picks up some the electronic tricks of efforts past as driven by lead vocalist Vince Griffin’s signature crooning and buoyed around the midway point by sampling techniques that should spark pangs of familiarity with fans of “Hospital Rooms Aren’t for Lovers”.

Bridge track “A Ladder to the Clouds” follows, and if I’m being brutally honest, even if it’s a unique sound, I’m not a huge fan of bridges, especially on a 13-track album.  Just my personal preference.  I guess I just want my playground saturated with slides, not landscaping.

But this does bring us to “Bad Blood”, which I can only describe as goosebump music—no R.L. Stine.  This song is just dripping with everything that makes music good: emotion, guitar riffs, clever lyrics, infectious drumming and a tangible build that pays off in a big way as the track nears it conclusion.  I didn’t think it was possible that “I’m Not Brave” or “Hospital Rooms Aren’t for Lovers” would ever get displaced as my favorite songs from Bear Colony, but then this bad boy came around with its lovably messy, emphatic chorus swirling in a mess of guitars.  Music this good was made to make you look embarrassing on public transit, as you drum and nod along.

Bear Colony – Bad Blood

Next up is the album’s lead single, “Flask Retort”, which we offered up here a month or so ago.  This is the perfect counterpunch to the exhaustively energetic “Bad Blood”, as it emphasizes bleeps, bloops and a cool, laid-back electronic vibe.  This probably represents the most unique effort from Bear Colony so far, and to much success—this track kick all kinds of ass without trying too hard.  The sound just comes so naturally here, a perfectly simple space rocket ride through some otherworldly crystal cavern.  That image made sense in my head, and in the sense this somehow reminds me of a level in Donkey Kong Country.

“Monster” completes an incredibly strong three-track run, and features some really impressive vocals from Griffin.   Again, nothing overly complicated about this track.  Just very well-composed, and a home run from Griffin.

Second bridge “Cult of Sleep” kicks off one of the weaker stretches of the album, starting with “Youth Orchestra” which is a bit bland and warbly for my tastes, and continuing through “Lights on the Domestic”, which is a technically well-composed track with a pretty little riff that just doesn’t ever really seem to hit the punctuation mark I was hoping it was seeking through the duration (though deserves props for a shout out to “Tiny Vessels”, advertent or not).  The instrumental breakdown at the end leaves the track concluding on a bit of an odd note, as well.

Everything picks up, though, with “The Hysterics”, which is beautifully-sung and features just the right kiss of guitar in the right spots.  This sounds totally unlike anything Bear Colony has done before, and in the best kind of way.  So many different sounds, different vocals, and some truly brilliant songwriting.  Though not technically my favorite song on the album, it’s a close second, and that’s hardly a disservice to the production here—more a testament to how much I like “Bad Blood”, and how neat it is that such a completely opposite sound as demonstrated here can be equally as appealing and confidently-assembled from the same collection of musicians.

Bear Colony – The Hysterics

“I Sing Mountains” transitions us into the final three tracks of the album on some peculiar, searching notes—more a mess of sound than anything—before settling on a staticy, distanced echo of guitars.  Again, artistically it make sense, but not my favorite audio design.  “We Don’t Know Harm II” concludes what part one started, resonating the album’s emphasis on celebrating life.

Truthfully, I wish the album had just ended there, as it was a perfect closing note and beautiful bookend piece, but the final track belong to “Break Bones”, which doesn’t do much for me.   It just feels a bit disjointed, and an odd choice following what seemed like the more natural conclusion.

So, in the end, did I regret hitting ‘play’?  Were my expectations too high?  Did I have too much riding on a past moment?

You must not have read my first sentence if you’re really asking these questions.

Soft Eyes was exactly what it needed to be: something new, something different, something exciting and something inherently owned by Bear Colony.  Call it an evolution, a divergence or a costume change…in the end, whatever the nomenclature, it’s Bear Colony, and it’s art.

I love some tracks.  I didn’t care as much for others.  I found the album overall to be a bit on the short end, and a bit overstuffed with bridges consequentially, but I can honestly say that six years of waiting was worth it, and I genuinely love this album.  It doesn’t settle for expectation or convention, and doesn’t commit the band to any one sound or audio destiny.  It’s a celebration of sound, and the careful crafting of it.

And while it may not hit the same notes as the last album, maybe that’s a good thing.  That album is reserved in a special place.  It always will be.  But we both needed to move on to a new moment, one I’ll look forward to occupying for a long time coming.

 

If interested, please stop by Esperanza Plantation to purchase the ‘Soft Eyes’ CD or vinyl.  Additionally, you can purchase the album on iTunes, Amazon and other standard digital download services, or preview the album on Spinner.com.