Pastoral Genocide

Minus the Bear – Planet of Ice
March 4, 2008, 2:12 am
Filed under: Music | Tags: ,


Here’s where I am: I’m standing on a beach, four time zones away from “home.” It’s March, but here it feels like July. The Pacific Ocean is blue and ethereally tinged equal parts grey and white. It’s mid to late afternoon and the sun burns low in the sky, doggedly sinking towards the horizon. The air tastes salty and good. This, I remember thinking, is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. This is elysian, this is the halcyon.

Exactly two years later, here’s where I am: I’m sitting on the edge of my bare mattress in my dark room. I haven’t ventured beyond the adjacent bathroom for nearly a week. I haven’t eaten in nearly as long. The morning light cuts parallel slivers of bright into the darkness. My bedside table is upturned, sitting crookedly on its side. Papers and clothes are strewn about, dotting the landscape like dead and dying soldiers. I’ve lost my mind, I remember thinking, I’ve lost my goddamn mind.

The constant here, you see, between the really good and really bad parts of life – my life, your life, any life – are the things that settle and soothe us, the things that help us celebrate the moments of ripe effervescence and, likewise, the things that try to help us – often in vain – expurgate the days, hours, and months that sink into the desultory fissures of self-hatred and depression. Individual culture is a static thing, a small, good thing that links our physical being to the to the qualities that serve as the cumulative definition of our person.

To me, these things are: the short stories of Raymond Carver, zombie movies, the Hank Chinaski saga, The Weakerthans, All Quiet on the Western Front, Coltrane’s saxophone on Alabama, the part in The Old Man and the Sea when our fearless protagonist rhetorically questions his catch saying, “Fish, you are going to die. Do you have to kill me too?” And, finally, to destroy any and all auspices of critical objectivity, Minus the Bear.

I love this band. To me, Minus the Bear is the fuzzily elongated outro on “Pantsuit…ugghhh,” Minus the Bear is Jake Snider singing “You said, my life’s like a bad movie,” Minus the Bear is the summer of 2004 that was, to me, defined by the airy feeling left in my stomach by “They Make Beer Commercials Like This. “ I love this band, in large part because they’ve been the soundtrack to large parts of my life and, invariably, have woven their way into so many of the memories I’ve now got stored in shoeboxes and packing crates in my closet.

I thought that 2005’s Menos El Oso was disappointing. Well, beyond disappointing. Up to that point, Snider’s cinematically-wide but otherwise bluer-collar musings, coupled with Erin Tate’s flawlessly dynamic drumming, Dave Knudson’s deftly progressive use of polyphony, Corey Murchy’s carnal bass, and Matt Bayles’ keys, together, had a relationship that was euphonically connubial. It was a cavalcade of sounds and ideas that were simple and meaningful. Sure, the band had (and still has, mind you) unmatched technical capabilities, but that wasn’t the point. Like a Hopper or a Rockwell, they strove to depict slices of daily life – weekend getaways, the feeling that you get when you wake up to really good looking woman, the thought of drinking all night with your close friends – that were meaningful. But Menos El Oso utilized such inconspicuous anecdotes in reservation. Sure, they emerged fleetingly on songs such as “Hooray,” but the album, artistically, chose, in large part, to be grandiose. Times and places were quantified in terms of the extraordinary instead of the ordinary. Personalities were stoic and reserved instead of honest and ordinary. The band too often, in my estimation, chose to push the limits of each individual component instead of working cohesively, often leading the music to wander into the sporadic, uninhabited plains of divergent melody and sound.

But Planet of Ice is different, in a good way. There’s a certain sense of tenacious self-preservation present from the onset of the album’s first track, “Burying Luck.” The tone is serious and firm. There’s a sense of urgency, but it’s targeted, honed to a knife-like point. This isn’t Menos el Oso, this isn’t Highly Refined Pirates, this isn’t particularly resonant of any previous effort. It’s urgent and angry. It’s serious. It’s epic and ballooning. Synth man Alex Ross, who replaced producer-extraordinaire Matt Bayles shortly after his departure in early 2006 to focus on his burgeoning production career, makes his presence immediately known by unleashing a smartly euphonic flotsam of flickering and flagging sound that rises vertically from the bulwark of the song.

By the album’s third track, “Knights,” a pattern has emerged, deftly sealing the complete and full departure from Menos el Oso-era Minus the Bear. Planet of Ice is fraught with an erudite brand of stony retrospect. The album’s serious tone allows for a certain type of punctuation, a cool confidence that both diffuses and creates tension. For instance, in “Knights,” Snider’s demeanor matches the band’s laid-back-to-a-fault introspection, agilely describing an impending and, it would appear, unaffecting decision in favor of emotional separation, saying coolly “I know it ain’t the money, girl, there never was money / A piece of you for a piece of me.” On the fifth track however, Snider displays a curious sort of enmity. It’s interesting to hear a band that formerly ascribed songs with titles such as “I’m Not Down with Rob’s Alien” and “Booyah Achieved” get pissed off, even if just marginally pissed off. “Dr. L.L’ing,” however, is seemingly upset. The synth grinds darkly, brazenly and bull-headedly. Knudson drops in, intermittingly spiking and spiraling the song forward while Tate and Murchy play off each other’s bulky overtones. Threats are launched and tension statically seeps into the song, ripening as the track progresses: “I watch you get in the taxi / Your hands on another man / You must be crazy if you think I’ll stand back.”

Together, “Dr. L.L’ing,” and the sixth song, “Part 2” form an ambitious pseudo-opus. It’s Minus the Bear’s first crack at out and out gallantry, relying not on narrative but, instead, on oversized portioning. All in all, they pull it off well, falling well short of perfection but, nonetheless, feverishly progressing forward.

One of the best, and undoubtedly the happiest, tracks on the album is also the shortest. “Throwin’ Shapes” rides in on the curtails of the “Dr.L.L’ing”-slash-“Part 2” conflagration. The song itself is something of a throwback to They Make Beer Commercials Like This both in tone and subject. It’s a happy, dancey, melodic amalgamate. It’s the good life put to song. But this happiness is fleetingly short lived, a brief reprieve from the album’s darker tendencies. The tone quickly and cholericly turns back to discontent on the eight track, “When We Escape,” when Snider croons “You Must be an illusion / I can see through you.” The song itself is yearning and beautiful. It’s my favorite on the album. The band, and its individual components, function smoothly and cogently with each. Knudson’s guitar work is spiraling and intricate, wispily and cautiously punctuating the track in a way that is vaguely reminiscent of some of his outro work on “Pirates.”

The disc’s final two tracks – “Double Vision Quest” and “Lotus” – are obese in ways similar to Dr. L.L’ing” and “Part 2.” Although not linked, the tracks share ideologies: go big, go boldly forward. It is here the applicability of the album’s title comes fully into play. These songs are glacial in scope and size, stretching into the horizon, these songs could play soundtrack to the voyage of the Karluk, delineating in and out of a foggy conscience. Certainly, there’s an element of masturbatory self-indulgence present, but the band’s made a conscious effort thicken the tone. Murchy’s bass on “Lotus” is electric, especially in the final two minutes when he, Knudson, and Ross sinisterly conspire with each other to paint a dark picture of the place that can only be described as a planet of ice: foreboding, lonely, and ultimately, introspective.

Planet of Ice is different. It’s a far cry from anything the band’s done. It incorporates little more than tidbits from either their early work or Menos el Oso. But unlike Menos el Oso, I’m not disappointed. Sure, I’d love the band to return to their roots. I’d love for them to make songs about living and breathing, daily observations delivered in narrative form with centripetal and sybarite musical arrangements. But as we know, life isn’t like that. Things change, time marches forward. Scripts get flipped and people change. When you think of where you were five years ago and compare it to where you are today, it’s often like you’re remembering a life that wasn’t and won’t ever really be yours. I’ve accepted that and, accordingly, I can’t logically ask for this band – or any band – to stand firmly on previous successes. The Minus the Bear that stole my breath four years ago is very different than the one that just stole my breath four minutes ago and I’m okay with that. But more importantly, I’m okay with this album. Yeah, it’s got its flaws. But it also has moments of latent beauty, melodies and sounds that exist just beneath a frosty icing of snow and cold.

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