By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
It's just two days after the release of Minus the Bear's latest album, Menos el Oso -- Spanish for Minus the Bear -- and the flame wars are in full blaze on the Seattle quintet's Web site. A poke around the message boards finds plenty of the usual fan fawning, but also a handful of dissenters expressing disappointment with the band's second full-length disc and first since 2002's Highly Refined Pirates (an EP, They Make Beer Commercials Like This, appeared in the interim).
In this particular case, the thread-starter (and professed Minus the Bear fan) has dared suggest that one of the new songs, "El Torrente," is "garbage" -- and is administered a cyber-beatdown by someone named "crowd-surfin-usa": "This guy needs to be shot in the face with a woodchipper full of sloth semen."
Minus the Bear frontman Jake Snider is not the poster known as "crowd-surfin-usa," but he admits over the phone from his Seattle home that he's caught wind of the mixed reaction to the album. His response to the naysayers is only a shade more diplomatic: "Actually, a lot of the longtime fans are having some trouble with it, but they can fuck off," the singer-guitarist chuckles dryly. "Maybe they'll figure it all out eventually."
So what's behind this trouble in Bear-ville? Chalk it up to across-the-board change, in both the music and the band's general disposition. The only real constant amid its stylistic evolution is the nature of Snider's voice, which remains pretty damn close to Jawbox's J. Robbins in both timbre and phrasing, a pleasing, histrionic-free tenor that's just the right combination of earnestness and resignation.
But sound-wise, one needn't get very far into Oso to detect a major shift away from the frenetic, knotty post-punk of recordings past. The hotly debated "El Torrente" is the prettiest, most delicate of the album's eleven tracks. It's a melodic puff pastry of a number, with airy layers of synth squiggles, manipulated guitar tones, machine beats and live drumming delivered in a manner resembling the supple indie-pop of the Postal Service.
Oso's next track, "Pachuca Sunrise," combines chiming prog-guitar warps and a ska-like chug to vaguely recognizable ends, while the vocal harmony halfway through hammers home the notion that the Police could've used this song on side two of Zenyatta Mondatta. And when guitars eventually pour into the Four Tet-ish opener "The Game Needed Me," they're not in the jagged style Minus the Bear usually employs, but more like blurry heat shimmers on a desert highway -- flooding the empty spaces of the arrangement, but not tensing things up.
"We're just not gonna make the same record over and over and do the same stuff," Snider insists. "I mean, I kind of understand some people's resistance to it. It seems like people like the first record they buy from a band -- the one that they really fall in love with a band with -- and then they say that whatever comes next isn't as good. I think they're completely wrong. I love the way this one sounds."
Oso may represent a lot of change for some fans to swallow, but it's easily the best, most engaging thing the band's created in its four-year existence. Just listen to the words Snider delivers, which represent a leap forward from the usual "chicks, booze, or chicks with booze" lyrical template of previous outings. Those themes aren't completely excised, but here he slides them into vivid, artful short stories of sanctuary by the seashore ("Drilling," "This Ain't a Surfin' Movie"), snowy afternoons wished to last forever ("Hooray") and skinny-dipping at night as the highest form of human communion ("The Fix").
Partly owing to such maturation -- and perhaps more to do with the burden it's ended up creating for the band -- Oso also steers clear of the long, silly song titles ("Thanks for the Killer Game of Crisco® Twister," "Get Me Naked 2: Electric Boogaloo," "Hey! Is That a Ninja Up There?") for which they've become famous.
"We don't write music so people can only talk about what we titled the songs," Snider sighs, clearly irritated by the subject. "All the bands that all of us have ever been in have done similar things with weird song titles; that's just what we've done. But for that to be what people comment about above the music is kinda stupid, so now we're just avoiding that whole thing."
And the more serious attitude Minus the Bear has taken toward its music-making and packaging carries over into the way it's approaching band operations in general. Snider has pulled the plug on FrictionUSA.com, the Suicide Girls-style adult Web site he and his wife have operated for the past couple of years. Keyboardist Matt Bayles is lightening his outside workload -- he's an in-demand producer who's worked with the likes of Mastodon, Isis and the Blood Brothers -- and guitarist Dave Knudson, bassist Cory Murchy and drummer Erin Tate are all equally more committed to pushing the band to higher levels.
"We've definitely become a better band in terms of playing a live show, but we're never at the point where we're like, 'OK, we're totally good enough, we'll be fine at all the shows,'" Snider says. "We can be hard on ourselves, but we're always striving to get as good as possible, because you want more people to come to your shows, to buy your records and just have the whole thing grow."
Indeed, many are already suggesting that Minus the Bear very well could follow in the footsteps of Death Cab for Cutie or Modest Mouse -- two other Pacific Northwest indie-pop bands that found success on their own terms even as they refined their sound.
"I guess we've been getting compared to those bands a lot, and that's totally cool; they've transcended any kind of scene or style, really," Snider says. "I'm not sure where we really fit in, or what people associate us with, but anything that helps people get their head around what we sound like is cool. Anything that gets them to the door is fine. Then they'll make their own decision at that point in time whether we suck or we're great."