PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Every band must have a beginning, where everything’s open and it’s all about finding your sound. In the Beginning documents the beginning for 14 Iced Bears, a unique UK pop-rock group which released its debut album in 1988, its second album in 1991, and broke up in 1992. This release is the story of what happened before the first album, from the band’s formation in 1985 to its first album. That story is told through two tracks from their first demo recordings, three singles, two Peel sessions and a few live tracks. All of those tracks are previously unreleased except for the three singles (the first two were released on Frank, the third on the now-widely loved label Sarah).
Four “phases” of the band existed during the three years that In the Beginning covers; 9 people play at various times on these recordings, yet two stay the same, guitarist Kevin Canham and the group’s lead singer/guitarist/songwriter, Robert Sekula. No matter what lineup changes the band went through, its sound stayed chiefly the same. 14 Iced Bears played super-melodic pop-rock which had both the childlike giddy eccentricity of their contemporaries the Pastels (not to mention all sorts of later groups, particularly Beat Happening and much of the K Records roster) and the dirty guitar-rock of the Velvet Underground. That latter side of their music led to everything being soaked in fuzz, giving their songs an gloriously noisy sheen that sounds utterly romantic to kids weaned on punk rock and its offshoots.
14 Iced Bears’ songs alternate between straightforward, catchy pop and more obtuse post-punk-ish art songs. That duality is immediately apparent on In the Beginning, with the first two songs on the band’s first single—the musically gleeful pop of “Inside” and the more complicated rock arrangements on “Blue Suit.” 14 Iced Bears’ lyrical side is persistently multi-faced as well, shifting between enigmatic poetry and straight-from-the-heart raw expressions of love, jealousy, confusion and longing.
The more heart wrenching side of 14 Iced Bears is best capsulated on “Balloon Song,” their second single and a song that no doubt helped give them a following. It appears twice here, in studio and Peel session versions, and it could easily have been here a few more times without me minding. It’s both a truly perfect pop song, with a super glue hook and gorgeous singing, and a heartbreaking portrait of sad love. The chorus is worded just right, with word building upon word until it hits the right bittersweet note: “Don’t call me ever again / I think I’ve lost my only friend/a friend that happened to say that she loved me.”
Catching up with the past can be a sublime pleasure. It’s impossible for even the most crazed music nerd to keep up with everything going on now and everything that happened in the past. That makes a release like In the Beginning such a treat. It serves the dual purpose of supplying fans with a nice gift while introducing newcomers to a truly remarkable band.