Thursday, 30 April 2009

Minus the Bear - Highly Refined Pirates (2002) & They Make Beer Commercials Like This (2004)

I thought it might be about time that I did something on two of my favourite records in the world. Minus the Bear are probably the coolest band ever. They write glitchy, complex songs full of lots of complex and often really gorgeous guitar tapping, but they sing about the simple pleasures in life: booze, cars, swimming pools and sex. Let's face it, if you hate them it's only because you're jealous that your life isn't that great. Because what kind of person doesn't like those things? Oh, and as a bonus, their songs are pretty catchy too.

When I was first getting into Minus the Bear with Highly Refined Pirates it was with the real hits of the record: 'Absinthe Party at the Fly Honey Warehouse', 'Monkey!!! Knife!!! Fight!!!', 'Get Me Naked 2: Electric Boogaloo' - explosive pop songs that pack hooks big enough to land blue whales. But while most of the songs on this album have an ostensibly feelgood vibe with lyrics about booze-soaked good times, there's an underlying romanticism behind it all, a nostalgic or even longing feeling for the things described in the lyrics. The real beauty in Jake Snider's lyrics is in the subtlety and the simplicity of his attention to small but beautiful little details, like in his description of an encounter with a girl in 'I Lost All My Money at the Cock Fights' where he ends on the line 'Her hair streaked her shirt with rain/and that did something to me'. Nothing verbose or elaborate, just subtle, understated beauty. Another real highlight of this aspect of his lyrics is 'We Are Not A Football Team', which perfectly captures those rare moments of comfortable silence that speak more than anything else could:

She was sitting on a swing
and dangling her feet

like the leaves of a tree

I think I heard her singing.

We're still out at 10 in the evening.

I knew her in the way that

I knew not to speak.

Quietly took a seat

and thought I'd stay for a week.

Highly Refined Pirates

'Get Me Naked 2: Electric Boogaloo' is one of the record's real highlights. On the face of it, it's just about someone struggling with a lifestyle filled with stress, anxiety and sleep deprivation. The way that it's delivered, though, means that the listener can relate and fill the gaps themselves, giving the song a much deeper, more personal meaning. The chorus is the most poignant bit:

You said, "My life's like a bad movie"
I said, "That's true
of all us"
You said, "I've got to wake up so fucking early"

And I said, "Maybe the director's turned on us"

The album's closer 'Let's Play Guitar in a Five-Guitar Band' took a long time to creep up on me but is currently my absolute favourite on the record. Jake sings about an encounter with an ex-lover who has left him emotionally fraught, maybe his "one that got away". It's all described very simply: he sees her through a shop window, which evokes fond memories of him when he was with her "just having sex and listening to jazz/and that was the life", but he tells himself not to involve himself with her again and to move on, nervously lighting up a cigarette as he walks by. The real ache of the song is in the longing of the repetition of the last few lines "I should go back to/see if she's still there/standing like a statue". Perhaps this is just me relating to a feeling that I've felt a lot, but that final repetition is really emotionally exhausting. The feeling of knowing that someone who's passed you by was special, but that sometimes you have to move on and leave those memories behind. The simple power of the images here mean that the song doesn't need any over-the-top embellishment to be hauntingly powerful.

They Make Beer Commercials Like This

The follow-up EP to that album, They Make Beer Commercials Like This, is similarly brilliant and summery, with Minus the Bear's most danceable song 'Fine + 2 Pts' and several other great songs, but I'm mainly posting it because of my love of two songs: 'I'm Totally Not Down With Rob's Alien' and 'Houston, We Have Uh-Oh'. The former doesn't really need a lot of explanation, just resonates with me a lot as one of the most relaxed and beautiful songs I've ever heard. 'Houston We Have Uh-Oh' has a real sense of underlying melancholy to it that makes it one of Minus the Bear's best songs, albeit oddly one that was originally just a b-side. Anyone who's ever travelled much will be able to identify with this song: it captures the isolated feeling of being a tourist, of being separate from your surroundings, and the kind of subtle disorientation and loneliness that can bring up. As someone who's spent a lot of their life moving between places and, more recently, revolved their life around relocation and travel, this song means a lot.

people used to live here
and lived their lives on this ground

raised them in these fields

and lost them in the future

and we just take pictures

of hearts that stopped beating

sometimes you're a tourist with a camera

stealing souls for scrapbooks

sometimes you've got a life back home

sometimes you're really alone, you're really alone

Minus the Bear - Highly Refined Pirates
Minus the Bear - They Make Beer Commercials Like This


Anonymous said...

Minus the Bear @ sxsw in HD

kuneho said...

I'm a huge fan of Minus The Bear and all of their songs. I like the way you explained their songs. I appreciate them now even more.