Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez is a man who has his fingers in every kind of pie. He’s an artist, a photographer, a musician. He’s been in a French-style electro-pop band (Cache Cache), a country-folk band (The Tall Grass), and an electronic side project (The Ruby Stallion Ensemble). He’s got a website full of whimsical drawings and slightly interesting photos. So I was curious to see what his acoustic solo debut, Why is Bear Billowing?, would be all about. I wanted to learn more about this man with the apple in his mouth. I wanted to hear what a song using Edward Lear’s poem “The Owl and the Pussycat” (track 10) as lyrics would sound like. And most of all, I wanted an answer to that immortal question: Just why IS bear billowing?
I never really learned the answer to that question. What I DID learn, however, is that Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez has assembled in Why is Bear Billowing? a collection of pretty, low-key folk songs that take time to worm their way into your heart. To be honest with you, the first few times I listened to this album, I found it a bit boring. Okay, the first TEN times. I repeatedly found myself wandering out of the room while it was playing, forgetting I was listening to an album at all, so that I missed the end altogether several times. I finally forced myself to sit with it through its entirety, to drop my expectations that comparisons with Donovan and Devendra Banhart had given me, and to evaluate what I was hearing based on what Alvarez was trying to accomplish.
And it all opened up for me. Somewhere around track two, “All With Golden Locks,” when he sings the lines “There is a ship out in the harbor/ With a shipment of all spoons/ Forks could lead to violence,” followed a bit later by a gorgeous and light and delicate music box solo, I thought to myself, “this is beautiful.” And I skidded all the way to the end, the Spanish-tinged “Mostly a Friend,” and realized it was well worth waiting for.
Alvarez has created a little folk-world with his lyrics, populated by ladies with golden locks, lion-minstrels carrying lutes, gypsies, and bakers who bake the best bread of all when they’ve finally found love. Wizards cast spells on sleeping mothers, and foes are really friends. It’s not a world that exists now, and though it seems to be based in some medieval-type universe, I doubt it ever did really exist. But it exists in these songs, and it’s pretty and simple and sweet and lovely.
Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez doesn’t have the edginess of Banhart, or eccentricity to compare with Donovan. Some of his lyrics are corny, some of his musical compositions are unexciting and probably a little uninteresting. But it’s a beautiful acoustic folk album with a style all its own. And that’s something that doesn’t come around too often.