ROGUE SOUNDS: Black Bears Fire twangs it out on ‘The Bottomless Blue’
Every critic has their biases that savvy readers can learn to take or leave. For purposes of transparency, know that this reporter’s proclivities include a total disdain for derivative instead of constructive nostalgia. No matter how many decades pass, a good sound will always be a good sound, but there’s nothing to be gained artistically by going full Gatsby and fetishizing a bygone era instead of adding your own spin. Just like research, the goal artistically should be to build on a body of work instead of resting on the laurels of those that came before, no matter how laurely they may be.
Ashland-based band Black Bears Fire’s influences aren’t exactly undercover, with elements of acts like Wilco and America clearly present in the sound on its new album, The Bottomless Blue, a collection of eight indie-Americana strummers released online in late April, with hard copies to come in summer. But it finds its own way, delivering songs similar to that of ’70s country-rock acts in a thoroughly modern vibe that’s a little bit country, a little bit rock and whole lotta indie. The straight-forward major-key folk song structures dressed up with twangy, surf-influenced lead guitar. Anchoring the sound are the Colin Meloy-esque vocals of Nic Mcnamara, whose slightly nasal croon has a warm, comforting feel.
“Wish I Knew,” is a peppy shuffle, about a complex love affair. The beat and leads have hints of “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” by The Beatles, and the lyrics have a fantastically ironic punk undertones.
Another standout track is the sweetly-harmonied mid-tempo swing of “My Best Friends are Dead.” If it weren’t for the total lack of grit in Mcnamara’s voice, it’s a song that you could hear being sung by Merle Haggard or Waylon Jennings.
None of the eight songs are the sort of endlessly hummable anthem that makes a single, but that keeps them from getting old. Especially there is a stylistically loose sound to The Bottomless Blue, like that on early indie recordings from bands like The Pixies or Pavement, or studio bands put together for rock sessions in the 1960s. It gives the album an added earnestness that is often lost in the click-track tight and auto-tuned world of studio recordings. Even with a full band, the warm vibe is one of a gathering of friends in a living room more than strangers in a temperature-controlled stadium. That’s a sound that’s definitely resurgent right now with bands like The Avett Brothers, First Aid Kit and Ark Life lighting a campfire in the underground. The Bottomless Blue probably won’t go down in history as a seminal entry to that canon, but it is a solid album that could launch Black Bears Fire from local to notable status.