Ursa Minor comes with a fairly impressive pedigree—the New York outfit released its debut, Silent Moving Picture, on Steve Shelley’s Smells Like Records and is home to cats who have played with luminaries such as Imogen Heap, Martha Wainwright, Teddy Thompson, and Rickie Lee Jones. Mark Ribot and Bill Frisell have been known to show up at the outfit’s gigs, and vocalist and main songwriter Michelle Casillas has a pretty cool voice and is, as they say, easy on the eyes. But none of those things really add up to making this sophomore effort a bang zoom success.
Things kick off slowly but with promise on “Lead and I Will Follow”, which summons the spirit of the original Pretenders lineup—especially the rhythm section of Rob Jost (bass) and Robert DiPietro (drums), who channel Martin Chambers and Pete Farndon with remarkable accuracy. It’s hard to tell if the track is a loosey-goosey invocation of the rock muse, or a piece that doesn’t quite hit the corners. No matter, it’s passable fun and the kind of song that probably goes down well enough live. The follow-up, “She Wants You”, finds Casillas doing some Hynde-esque cooing and oohing like a sex kitten armed with guts of steel and a switchblade.
But the third track, “Guerilla”, finds the group struggling to keep up with itself—does it want to be one of the world’s most dangerous bands, stalking our earholes like a panther stalking a deer, or is it trying to find its way into the earbuds of less dangerous types who will download Showface then forget it when it comes time to upgrade to a new i-something next summer? The answer seems to be the latter, and that’s too bad, because when Ursa Minor is on, such as on the glam-ish “2032”, or during some moments of the jazz-ish “All of the Time”, it’s really on, capable of holding a broken bottle to your throat and convincing you to hand over everything you have.
Unfortunately, those moments are fairly far between, and to get to the latter from the former one must wade through the generic “Always Someone”, the under-cooked title track, the listless “No Other”, and two others that feel stiff and lifeless. Of course, the joy of arriving at “All of the Time” is short-lived, as that gives way to the slow-moving blandness of “What Good Is a Song”. Like so many of the pieces here, “What Good Is a Song” has all the right elements to make a killer tune—Casillas sings better than many, and the musicians that surround her are far more than capable. But too many times these pieces pass each other by, never connecting, never fitting together in a way that allows the band or the material to jell.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the fault lies, and perhaps that’s the greatest problem—it’s that indefinable something that makes you wonder why you’re listening at all to something that never really fully grabs your attention. A real shame for such an affable-sounding band.