Minus the Bear

by Shain Shapiro

11 December 2006

Asleep or awake, bears are extraordinarily predictable animals: they're either on a search for food or a place to rest.

We can learn a lot from the bear’s sleeping patterns. For half the year—though that duration is gradually shrinking because of global warming—bears completely conk out. Solitary animals, they gather as much as they can before the winter frost and then head indoors, only to emerge four to six months later fully refreshed and ready to invade the trash piles of stupid campers. Growing up in Canada, I was instructed that doing certain things in the woods would engender curious bears, and, sure enough, on several occasions, my laziness and stupidity brought on such encounters. After all, asleep or awake, bears are extraordinarily predictable animals: they’re either on a search for food or a place to rest. That’s about it. In other words, bears are as predictable as a standard, five-day, nine-to-five work week.

Minus The Bear are an enigmatic bunch who have brought some modicum of credibility to emo—whatever that means. In its four releases, the quintet has cleverly coagulated cynicism with intelligent hooks, sarcasm with seriousness, and goofiness with sincerity. Their song titles and lyrics are theatrical, almost absurdist, but their music is minor-key and brooding, as if each song is only smiling in an effort to hold back the tears. Their recent effort, Menos El Oso (Minus The Bear in Spanish for those linguistically challenged), is a sort of magnum opus that cements this consistent, pensive sound.

And it is this sound alone that’s won them popularity. Even their biggest fans have to agree: Minus The Bear’s shtick is fairly one-dimensional. That’s not a judgment, more an acknowledgment of the plain fact that their melodic structures rarely differ from song to song. Bluntly speaking, Minus The Bear is, like their namesake, predictable. But even when bears sift through garbage for twenty minutes, their curiosity—however temporal—is interesting to watch.  And you can’t turn away for fear of missing the long awaited climax: will the bear, or will the bear not, eventually find the prime rib it has been seeking?

With Minus The Bear, it’s the same story. Yes, the songs all sound similar, but their dedication to the same is interesting. By plotting out each inch of land within an enclosed space so laboriously that fatigue sets in, Minus The Bear often find something new in previously traveled terrain. The same goes for their live show: despite similar sounding songs, the entire hour remained interesting.

On the records, it’s the nuances, the flickers and flecks of chords, the simple tapping and tight chord progressions—within the framework of course—that keep things interesting. The same goes for the live show:  songs from Menos El Oso thematically entwined the set, from the simply titled “Memphis and 53rd” to the dominating “The Game Needed Me” and the light-hearted “Hooray!”  With former engineer Alex Rose taking over keyboard and electronic sampling duties for departed founder Matt Bayliss, the quintet ran through one tightly composed number after another. An hour later, it all added up to one long, but somehow fun and exciting, exercise in compositional consistency. Some songs stood out; some completely washed over me as if I was the one hibernating.

As the hour-long song wound down and the band returned for an encore—not surprisingly mirroring the same melodic themes—the sold-out crowd sustained its stoic attention. Once again, it was the newer material off Menos El Oso that took precedent, and yet, four bars into the tune, I swore to my friend that we’d heard this forty-five minutes earlier. She assured me that was not true, but I remained unconvinced. I’m still not.

Minus The Bear do one thing very well, but only one thing. Their music either searches for food or hibernates, depending on the structure of the melody, and that’s it. Yet, such unabashed predictability can be, and in this case was, enjoyable. Good on them for choosing one thing and doing it right, because, really, it’s that kind of dedication that makes bears so interesting.

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