El Oso is all grown up
Minus the Bear is all grown up. That is, it has abandoned the silly songs and lyrics that had been characteristic of its songs for more sophisticated songwriting. For those not familiar with Minus the Bear’s sound, imagine the Police, had Stewart Copeland and Sting been from San Diego rather than England. The songs charge forward, built on syncopated rhythms and calculated, rich guitars. However, now it isn’t Minus the Bear’s sound that is most noteworthy. It is the songwriting. Particularly the lyrics. There aren’t any songs here about drinking and girls—at least not in the sense that you would expect from these guys. Lead singer and guitarist Jake Snider has turned inward for this album, making the songs far more rewarding.
On “The Fix”, Snider sings, “These are just bodies / we have a purpose / and the gravity / pulling us from them to we.” Yes it is still technically about sex, but only in the most literal sense. The lyrics are driving toward something far more powerful: human contact and need, rather than the physical act. It isn’t the only song on the album to tackle such a theme. “Fulfill the Dream” romanticizes a one night stand, as the narrator passes a past lover on the street with someone else. He laments, “She’s not mine and she’ll never be / by my side walking downtown,” before recounting the night he met her and how he wants to believe that for a brief time, they were in love. Similarly, the album’s closer “This Ain’t a Sufin’ Movie”, in spite of its juvenile title, tries to permanently capture the moment of love, as one does by writing a poignant passage on a page.
“Pachuca Sunrise” again recalls a specific moment on the beach—this time it is lamenting a loved one missed. “Midnight on a beach on the Mediterranean / and I miss you” sings Snider. It sets the tone for the song’s imagery and longing.
For all of its successes, however, Menos el Oso isn’t without fault. Later in “Pachuca Sunrise”, Snider sings, “Don’t cry, I’ll bring this home to you / If I can make this night light enough to move.” It is the most heartfelt lyric in the song, but the melody plays against this, ramping up into double time with a slamming rhythm behind it, ultimately counteracting the intended effect of the lyric. This isn’t the only such time this occurs on the album. In many places the themes, lyrics, and songwriting are undermined by the undeniable surf rock sound. There needs to be balance between music and lyrics; both have to serve each other. It may be a personal hang-up, but surf-rock guitars with hints of electronica—as impressively as they are executed here—make it hard to take some of the songwriting too seriously.
While not all of the songs on Menos el Oso are winners, the album as a whole holds up much better than any of their previous efforts. Even with a few missteps this latest effort, by exploring some deeper themes as well as employing a broader sonic pallet, is a definite step in the right direction. It is a band on the climb, moving forward both as musicians and songwriters.