When I had first heard that all of the song titles on the new Minus the Bear album were, relatively speaking, pretty normal, I didn’t think much of it. They were always pretty arbitrary anyway. But when I had heard that there was no fingertapping, I did a double take. That a prominent aspect of the band’s former sound had been removed altogether seemed a little shocking. I wasn’t really sure what to make of Menos el Oso at that point, though I hadn’t even heard it. The band’s previous EP, They Make Beer Commercials Like This, was a fine transition between albums, bringing a new found dancey sensibility to their smooth textures and dreamy indie pop. But Menos el Oso isn’t so much a continuation of the four-on-the-floor grooves of Beer Commercials as it is a straight-faced continuation of the sounds on Highly Refined Pirates.
Guitarist Dave Knudson has, indeed, abandoned the `tapping, but a good band, without a good gimmick, is still a good band. The songs, this time around, run a wider spectrum of sounds, dabbling in cut-and-paste sampling on opener “The Game Needed Me” and “The Fix.” Meanwhile, songs like “Drilling” make up for a lack of electronic experimentation with a solid fix of distortion and volume, which, though not necessarily new, is an idea that Minus the Bear uses quite infrequently.
Regardless of what “tricks” find their way into the band’s routine, it’s ultimately the strength of the material, with or without studio manipulation, that makes Menos el Oso such an enjoyable listen. The cosmetic ornamentation, however, does allow for intriguing headphone listening, however, as unique textures and sounds reveal themselves with closer attention. In terms of the record as a whole, Menos el Oso doesn’t stray far from the band’s previous work, but rather refines it into a more relaxed, but ultimately professional and more intricate work.
Songs like “The Game Needed Me” and “Memphis and 53rd” paradoxically layer the danceable with the dreamy and atmospheric. Minus the Bear’s songs are pop songs, catchy ones at that, but they aren’t like many you’ll hear on the radio. Each track is allowed space to breathe and live, not confined to strict rhythm vs. lead arrangements. Jake Snider’s voice blends in with the music perfectly, adding his laid back delivery in an almost detached manner, narrating scenes like “We’d been gone/and the miles stretched down the long road.” But as he croons it, you can almost picture a barren desert highway.
The best moments come when the band just lets it all break loose. “Pachuca Sunrise” rocks significantly harder than the two quieter tracks that precede it, while Dave Knudson hammers out some fast, but wank-free riffage. And “Fulfill the Dream,” while still somewhat contained and polished, is worthy of a fist pump or two, guaranteed.
Those that can’t get past the song titles and fingertapping are truly missing out, though there’s absolutely no reason why a fan of Highly Refined Pirates couldn’t make the leap to Menos. A good pop song is still a good pop song, and on Menos el Oso, Minus the Bear provides us eleven more to hear and enjoy.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.