Brian McTear is probably best known as a producer, working with such indie acts as Mazarin, Matt Pond PA, and Danielson; but he’s long been active as a performer and songwriter as well, including a significant stint in the 1990s with the band Mariner Nine. In 2002, McTear started Bitter Bitter Weeks as a primarily solo project, releasing CDs in 2003 and 2004. On Peace is Burning like a River, their third outing, McTear fleshes out Bitter Bitter Weeks into a full, if somewhat ad hoc, band, enlisting the help of a number of musicians with busy careers of their own: keyboardists Jesse Gallagher (Apollo Sunshine) and Brian Christinzio (BC Camplight), bassist Mike Fleming (the A-sides), and drummer Ric Menck (Velvet Crush, the Novenas).
McTear has a singularly lovely high tenor, but he enlists a number of guest vocalists on the CD as well, including romantic partner and Novena front woman Amy Morrissey and Mazarin’s Quentin Stoltzfus. Morrisey is quite a multi-talented collaborator: she plays keyboards with the touring version of the band, assists in production duties, and contributed the album’s artwork. A nice touch on McTear’s part: In the CD’s liner notes, he lists various other projects of BBW bandmates as “recommended listening”.
Peace is Burning like a River doesn’t abandon the alt-country aesthetic of Bitter Bitter Weeks’ previous efforts; rather, it integrates this into a broader sonic palette that encompasses indie rock, flashes of experimentation, and tunes that smack of honest to goodness pop accessibility. The most noteworthy departure is the ubiquitously full sound of the band at work. While one may miss some of the vulnerability and appealing sparseness of McTear’s previous “solo” outings as BBW, the new group has already coalesced into a powerful and oftentimes affecting entity. What’s more, McTear has kept the full group context in mind when composing his songs, crafting works which “sing” effectively with this bolstered complement. An example of this evolution is the CD’s title track, which begins with McTear’s voice and guitar alone, but unfolds into a spacious sing along coda; the chorused voices during this finale add a gravity which makes the song truly special.
Elsewhere, the band is less delicate in their ministrations. “Once and for All” is, at least musically speaking, a jubilant, sunshine-filled slice of jangle pop. Here, as elsewhere, McTear’s lyrics are enigmatic and oblique, cast in an ambiguous humor often at odds with the uptempo demeanor of the music. Similarly, “Lion has his Pride”, one of the CD’s standout tracks, pairs soaring melodies with a tragic yet defiant down-and-out tale. Many of the lyrics address dismay at the world’s current state of affairs and anxiety about what might happen next. For example, the first verse of “Terrified”: “I’ve never been so terrified / Sweetheat what harms will come about in our time? / The good men believe they’ve done no crimes / And the bad men all think God’s still on their side”. Once again, this sobering sentiment is paired with almost defiantly catchy music: a resilient rhythm guitar chugs out a riff reminiscent of “Proud Mary”, which accompanies cooing duet vocals replete with “la la las”. While some of these juxtapositions of disparate demeanors create some delicious contrasts, I’m particularly fond of the passages in which McTear allows the music to go sideways as well — such as the off-kilter keyboard experiments on “Oxbow Lake Syndrome”, which feature Ivesian discords and deliberately “out-of-time” interruptions.
Bitter Bitter Weeks’ new personnel are enthusiastic in their support, expanding McTear’s creative vision rather than diluting it. One looks forward to seeing how the project, having found its footing in this larger incarnation on Peace is Burning like a River, will develop from here. Incidentally, the band, with the help of filmmaker Jon Michals, has made a video for each song on the album, all of which are available for viewing at peaceburninglikeariver.com.