Bears are from Cleveland and they make doe-eyed pop that reaches for the golden medium between sorrow and sweetness; for a product which resists one-dimensional explication but endears itself through inroads both mellifluous and mysterious. Their latest record, and second to date, is called Simple Machinery. It was composed and performed in its entirety by Craig Ramsey and Charlie McArthur, a duo which possesses the ability to craft breezy and concise songs that manage to colonize the fringes of the unconscious without leaving any definite, not to speak of indelible, impression. Happiness and sunshine lie closely insinuated with their unavoidable demise on a bed of clean—often all too clean—impeccably white sheets.
Taking cues from ’60s groups like the Zombies (think Odessey & Oracle) with a penchant for heavy emphasis on harmony vocals, Bears are unabashedly pop. Their songs always feel very full but they usually manage to rein things in to just about the right degree. McArthur and Ramsey excel at arrangement. Though Simple Machinery‘s longest track clocks in at a mere three minutes and 27 seconds, Bears impress by amassing plentiful hooks and atmospheric instrumentation in such small spaces while keeping claustrophobia carefully at bay. As befits a summer record, light and air predominate—even in the gloomier moments.
The two strongest songs on the album are a pair of Ramsey compositions: opener “Please Don’t” and a joyous little paean to doomed love, “Wait and See.” Both find the band touching up irresistible melodies with subdued tones of a darker nature. The latter sets its doubt in shades of an ending August, while “Please Don’t” almost gets downright brooding. Its farfisa organ acts the fool, punctuating punchlines with decentered interjections. Such ambivalence is characteristic of the Ramsey’s songs. His voice is gentle and vulnerable, and most engages when it reacts with the quiet notes of pathos and dysfunction that creep up through the surface. Call it the Elliott Smith effect in microscopic form. While neither Bear comes anywhere near the commanding presence of Smith on tape, their attention to detail and the thin veil separating joy from horror do bring him to mind.
What is missing most from Bears music is a distinctive personality. They have good taste. The tradition they draw from is a worthy one and they are apt students who know all the right moves. There is just something unmistakably missing from many of their songs and some end up feeling like live demonstrations of how a pop song should be composed rather than being remarkable in their own right. What separates a fantastic Zombies song like “Care of Cell 44” from some of the band’s lesser work is its singularity. A bright stamp that screams “Nailed by the Zombies!” A song written as a letter to a beloved inmate may sound novel, and it is from one point of view, but in this particular case it borders on perfection.
What makes it work so well? I am not going to try to answer that here but I will mention one factor. Lyrics don’t always have to be spectacularly nuanced, but they do have to carry more weight than they do on Simple Machinery. Otherwise, as track piles upon mellifluous track, things slow to a grind. The mystery cracks and, illusion or not, things start to feel formulaic and sapped of emotion. Bears are a band with a solid foundation to build up from and there is plenty on Simple Machinery to suggest they will do just that, vague inspiration accommodating.