Bear In Heaven Melts Minds and Hearts As One

May 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

philpot at bowery

Bear in Heaven singer John Philpot at Bowery Ballroom, NY | photo: Monica So

By the middle of his band’s stroboscopic (see, not epilepsy-friendly) performance, John Philpot was dancing alone at the center of the Bowery Ballroom stage: elbows hiked up around mid-torso, legs and fists pumping, his face an exuberant half-grin, half-grimace. The Bear In Heaven frontman had abandoned his post at a deck of keyboards, which continued rippling loops of sharp-edged synthesizer, leaving the rest of the musical equation to the capable rhythm section rounding out his trio.

On some nearby plane, Philpot was enjoying newfound freedom: “I want to run to you but my legs won’t respond,” he sang moments before. Yet there he was, transcending paralysis and making good on a promise repeated at the song’s chorus: “If you come dance with me, I think you will like my moves.”

Like so many songs from the latest album by Bear In Heaven, “The Reflection of You” celebrates abandon, as a liberator and as a conduit for the intimate or unique.  Which puts the song at the heart of I Love You, It’s Cool (Dead Oceans/Hometapes), a circuit of synth-driven, frenzied dance tunes that allude to emotional or physical surrender along many fronts, but always in the positive—or at least neutral (insofar as songs like “Sweetness and Sickness” or “Warm Water” are unintelligible breezes). “The Reflection of You” happens to be the only track to actually conflate hedonism with dancing, rather than, say, sex (“Kiss Me Crazy”), drugs (“Sinful Nature,” “Idle Heart”) or madness (“World of Freakout”).

Even for an effects-heavy record, it’s remarkably robust-sounding coming from a three-piece. It’s knowingly produced—by David Wrench and Philpot, who has a background in audio engineering. Which means drummer Joe Stickney’s skip-stepping patterns churn even more crucially in tracks like “World of Freakout,” or in “Idle Heart,” where his drums sound thrillingly engulfed in distortion by the second verse. Adam Willis’ guitar-work and limber bass lines are less overt but a flexible ligament between the tom-dominant percussion and Philpot’s keyboards, which permeate and evolve throughout the album with a creative richness that suggests the care of a scrupulous craftsman; they hiss in the valleys; bloom or splash into focus like fireworks when the moment is climactic. Most importantly, however howitzer-sounding they become, Philpot rarely sounds as though he’s raising his voice—or needs to. In “World Of Freakout,” the sonic megalith of the album, his boyish bellow  floats to the surface in soft, placid arcs. If you can’t understand him, you’re not supposed to.

So it wasn’t as surprising, then, that Bear In Heaven concocted an inordinate degree of motion and aural whorls here as it might have been were it a group not as reliably—and oddly—galvanizing. The latter was more the case when the three-piece dipped toward its older songs. Those came from Beast Rest Forth Mouth, a more languid walk of danceable gloom-pop from 2009. The band played that album’s most compelling tunes here, which made for striking contrast. “Lovesick Teenagers” and “Dust Cloud” marched through even hazier malaise when situated between their adrenalized contemporaries.

doldrums, bowery

Airick Woodhead of Doldrums | Monica So

Such was the thematic current the Brooklyn trio channeled during its homecoming here at Bowery Ballroom after more than a month of touring behind I Love You, It’s Cool, which was released in April. But they weren’t alone. Arriving first on a three-band bill this evening was Doldrums, the electronically loquacious project begun by the young Toronto comer Airick Woodhead. Wildly energetic—though rarely to the point of sloppiness—Woodhead interwove elaborate sequences of midi-activated patches that relied on sudden, sonic upheavals for dramatic contrast. Some of them came from Empire Sound (No Pain In Pop), an interesting EP packed with diverging rhythms and cryptic couplets, shot through with Woodhead’s reedy-voiced holler—the strength of which was much more evident here. At its best, Doldrums verged on the shamanistic: Woodhead stumble-dancing opposite his doppelgänger co-vocalist, often with a finger improbably glued to a keyboard.

The set wasn’t without its kinks, but it offered more in unexpected and brilliant intensity than the middling performance by Blouse, a Portland trio specializing in tuneful but tepid rock indebted to ’80s new wave. The guitarist and singer of the group Charlie Hilton kept the emotional hatches battened down. “I was in the future yesterday but now I’m in the past,” she sang with an unwavering expression. It sounded flat and polite, like a far cry from what had come before or would soon follow.

—M. Sean Ryan (May 19th, 2012)


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