Tuesday, August 25, 2009

More Less-Is-More Please

Angry Bear
(Coming Home/Los Feliz)
Please remember: Pop is short for popular. Rock is short for rock & roll. Mellowdrone make pop-rock and are good at what they do. The trio's 2006 major label debut, Box, came stocked full of polished, broad-appeal tunes delivered with the kind of hairstyled sex-appeal that television producers seek out to soundtrack the choreographed make-out sessions of pretty young actors. Box was fine, but the danger felt a tad calculated.

The band has since parted ways with Columbia Records, taking time to write and record Angry Bear in a more casual manner, letting the tunes, not the studio, rule the day. An outstanding example of this change is the song "Elephant." An open, playful arrangement makes enough room for a short organ-led waltz amid the guitar scratches, pounding snare and '80s-rock synth coda.

Mellowdrone uses dynamics more fluidly too, releasing smoldering tension with thunderous guitars that smash up against choruses. Singer Jonathan Bates' lackadaisical baritone swings up to a scream only when necessary, enhancing the too-many cigarettes weariness of Bear. The effect is a less deliberate eroticism, colored by resignation, confusion and myriad other emotions that clog and complicate romantic entanglements.

Listen closely to "Jumping Off the Pier." The rhythm guitar and drums crib from Motown, and though the song does layer on more instruments, Bates and his band (multi-instrumentalist Tony DeMatteo and drummer Brian Borg) don't build a wall of sound. Instead the recording echoes the recollections of the lyrics by putting the pieces together a little bit at a time, rearranging the details as the song unfolds.

Bates, multi-instrumentalist founder and chief songwriter of Mellowdrone, recorded and mixed Angry Bear himself. That's not an unusual feat these days. That it sounds so good is.

Reference material: Though Bates' vocals recall Beck, Angry Bear should find a comfortable home with fans of Eels (circa Daisies of the Galaxy) and Pulp's Hardcore. And check out the Mellowdrone website -- a rare example of a band site that's more than PR copy.