Monday, February 23, 2009

Golden Bear: Everest

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If one of the goals of an EP is to make the listener want to hear more the second it ends, then Golden Bear's Everest EP is a resounding success. Its five songs are melodic and catchy bits of indie pop that lodge in the listener's head somewhere between last night's drunken revelry and the morning after's headache-inducing sunlight. These songs settle in and don't leave easily, and that's a good thing. The EP's tracks are free of the frills, extraneous diddling and self-indulgent experimentalism that have been the downfall of countless indie bands. The band seems to know that sometimes it's okay to be straightforward and direct, leaving the pretentiousness to those hapless and overly sincere bands that litter the landscape.

The band plays what it describes as "galactic-forest rock," a term most likely devised to confound gullible music journalists and bloggers and to give the band a memorable jumping off point. Yet whether the term is a lark or genuine is beside the point; the songs on Everest are strong enough to stand on their own, without needing the support of vague and obtuse genre-bending categories. The Austin, TX band - given the current glut of bands hailing from that city, we should seriously consider tagging them before they are released into the musical wilds - shows enough musical and lyrical dexterity on this EP to distinguish themselves from their peers.

The songs here are four-minute bursts heavy with guitars, drums, occasional horns, dueling keyboards and up-front vocals. Amidst many indie bands' seemingly willful obtuseness - if it's incomprehensible and murky it must be deep and meaningful - such an organic approach is welcome. The production is clean and the arrangements are unapologetically up tempo; opener "Night Lights" starts with electric guitars and drums, "All the Stars" is built around nice group harmonies and the requisite horns - every indie album must include horns - and closing track "Miracle Mile" wraps up the EP nicely with more guitars and drums. The band's sound recalls a number of other bands - most often Built to Spill and, to these ragged ears at least, Pavement in a pinch - without sounding derivative.

Indeed, Chris Gregory's vocals are at times reminiscent of Doug Martsch, minus that voice's occasional thinness and compression. The songs are frequently dryly humorous and sometimes dour; their lyrics contain countless references to lost time and the future, coupled with a confused and restless psyche spinning its wheels and just killing time. "I might break the law/ Or go insane if I don't find some peace of mind," Gregory deadpans on "All the Stars;" while later on the title track he admits that "All those fantasies I started believing/ Show no signs of coming true." Still the EP isn't sad-sack depressing - plenty of doses of comedy and hope creep in, especially in the wonderfully ambiguous "Future Blues" - and the band manages to successfully navigate between punchy arrangements and intelligent if sometimes serious lyrics.

Though in some ways the Everest EP doesn't stray too far from the sound of previous album To the Farthest Star, it's an instantly likeable EP that's both easy on the ears and worthy fodder for all those indie armchair psychologists. While some bands lose points and shatter their reputations in the name of absurd experimentation, Golden Bear shows that sometimes a direct approach is the best way to go.

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