[30 October 2006]
To listen to Golden Bear is to be transported to a time when the connotations of “indie music” were much different than they are today. In those days, “indie” stood for “independent”, and musicians who fell under that label usually possessed remarkable tenacity and a low-fi aesthetic. Today, however, “indie” might as well be an abbreviation for “industry”, as the term frequently applies to commercially viable pop music that is distributed on labels that move millions of units and generate millions of dollars. Golden Bear definitely falls under the former category of indie music. The band members value energy over stylish production, have few fans outside of their native Austin, Texas, and, judging from their music, couldn’t be prouder.
The cover of Golden Bear’s self-titled debut shows a winged bear wielding a shield and brandishing a golden sword. This image of unbridled heroism is echoed throughout the album’s 11 songs. Sometimes these echoes are musical, as when the opening track “A Reason to Be Proud” sounds a call to arms with a stirring harmonized guitar lick and bombastic drums. Others are lyrical, such as the religiously cynical track “Santa Rosa”, which contains the line “We’ve been had for the very last time / And I swear they won’t take us alive”.
Golden Bear is in many ways a musical portrait of a group stretching its talents to their breaking point. The album’s second track proclaims that “ten thousand orchestras” are not enough “to make a sound that a girl can hear through her velvet ears”, and the remaining tracks show the band attempting to compensate for the limitations of musical instruments through sheer force of effort. Sometimes they are successful, such as the times when the drummer’s frenzied pounding propels a track like “Victory is Ours” into the sonic stratosphere. Unfortunately, the band members’ energy is not always enough to save their music. Even the most earnest efforts were not enough to compensate for the poor vocals on tracks like “Wonderful”.
Despite the band’s shortcomings, Golden Bear is an enjoyable record. Just like the fuzzy ursine creature of its title, the band possesses loads of charm. Songs vary between the upbeat and the melancholy, but each one possesses catchy melodies and colorful instrumentation. “Golden Bear Revival Stomp” is a fun romp with bouncy riffs highlighted by sparkling xylophones. “The Saddest Songs” recalls an old saloon with its twangy pedal steel guitar and tinkling piano. The album’s closer “Amazing Edward”, with its majestic horn parts, is strangely inspirational.
Some bands use music as a means to make money. Others use it to explore sonic territory and break new artistic ground. The members of Golden Bear do neither: they make music simply because they love it. The band members’ passion for their songs is evident, and it would earn Golden Bear a solid recommendation even if the album demonstrated no other positive qualities. As it stands, the group’s debut is also a fun, catchy, charming, and occasionally touching effort, and all these qualities make the music’s flaws easy to overlook.