[28 March 2010]
Seabear has all the right stuff. The band comes from Iceland, a place that thus far has maintained a solid track record of crossover music acts (including Björk and Sigur Rós, in case you somehow forgot). Cute, fashionable, and playing a popular brand of intricately constructed, hush-hush, stateside-inspired folk-pop, Seabear seemingly can’t go wrong. Even longtime Rolling Stone rock critic emeritus David Fricke called lead singer Sindri Már Sigfússon the “Icelandic Beck”—which can’t hurt, even if it’s completely off the mark and undeserved.
Originally the musical project of singer/songwriter Sigfússon, who employed a revolving cast of members to back him, the band has evolved into a permanent septet. For We Built a Fire, Sigfússon dished out portions of creative control and allowed all members of the band to have equal input in the writing process of the album. How communal of them. Igniting the kindling and taking their respective places around the proverbial campfire, the members of Seabear set the mood of their second full-length with the opening track, “Lion Face Boy”, a midtempo, string-filled pop number that builds into a gently enthusiastic chorus full of horns and easy melodies. The tempered, pastoral atmosphere continues on throughout the obligatory (for a folk-inspired record) piece with acoustic guitar and a weeping saw, “Fires Dies Down”, and the full-bodied “I’ll Build A Fire”, plump with rumbling drums, violins, and female vocal harmonies.
With the following “Cold Summer”, the listener gets a treat. On this lightly arranged melancholy piece backed by a cyclical piano line, sparse strings, and a plucking guitar, the band keeps its cool while Sigfússon sings of drunken parents and chilly night-time dances. At song’s end, Sigfússon recedes back into the communal circle of instruments and the band takes over, letting the emotionality of Sigfusson’s verses fuel the building intensity of the music. If you’re not paying close attention, you might mistake “Cold Summer” as a lost Sufjan Stevens B-side.
As We Built a Fire continues along into its second half, the band keeps closely to its brand of pleasantly pedestrian folk-pop. Themes of seasons (“In Winter Eyes”), affective temperatures (“Warm Blood”), and semi-anthropomorphic creations (“Wolfboy”, “Leafmask”, “Wooden Teeth”) all repeat along with brittle backing vocals, acoustic guitars, banjos, whimpering saws, and weeping violins. These mostly safe and pleasant tunes showcase a group of extremely talented and versatile musicians who struggle with only one thing: how to write a memorable pop tune. Blame it on Sigfússon’s whispering vocal delivery and lack of range, or the inundation of a thousand and one bands that play this same brand of soft, folk-inspired pop. You can even blame it on technological innovations that have exposed us to so many similar groups. Or you can blame it on David Fricke (why not?). Really, though, finger-pointing isn’t a fruitful endeavor when trying to pinpoint what is wrong with We Built a Fire, because nothing is particularly wrong with the album. It just isn’t especially remarkable.
With so many comparable releases bombarding listeners on a monthly basis, We Built a Fire will likely find itself quickly overlooked for more immediately memorable releases. Which is only really a shame in that it is obvious that this was a dedicated and skilfully composed record. Somebody out there who is willing to give it the dedication and repeated listens in order to decipher all its intricacies and quietly delivered lyrics may fall in love with this record. For the lot of us, though, We Built a Fire is another reminder that talent doesn’t necessarily equate with one’s ability to make a memorable record.