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Life lines

Getting to the hard core of Big Bear
By MICHAEL BRODEUR  |  February 12, 2008

“INDIE” Imagine King Kong joining your book club — that’s why Big Bear aren’t always met with the reception they deserve.

It’s a recent Saturday night at Chum’s (né Cholmondeley’s, a boozeless on-campus pub at Brandeis), and a couple of dozen respectable-looking young men and about as many girls in smart party dresses are waiting for the night’s band, Big Bear, to do whatever rock bands are supposed to do when they show up on campus.

“So, what are you studying?” guitarist Joel Roston asks from the stage.

“Rock and roll!” volunteers some dude who’s less respectable than he looks.

“Well, prepare to fail that subject, my friend!”, Joel fires back. And then, after a pause: “I have no idea what I meant by that. I think I thought it would be vaguely self-deprecating.”

From there Big Bear launch into a song filled with so much elated lurching, brutal collapse, and skyward release that it makes me think of multiple orgasms. And not histrionic music-critic bullshit orgasms — real ones, maybe even animal ones. The assembly of unprepared students respond to the volume by retreating into a protective arc formation and ransacking their purses for tissues to stuff in their ears.

Of course, scaring people away isn’t Big Bear’s primary objective. This band’s goal involves sharing, communicating, dissolving illusions, achieving a better understanding of one another. You’d think university types would eat this up.

“What I’m trying to do with music,” Roston tells me later, “is say, ‘Let’s have a thoughtful, open dialogue about whatever this strange condition is that we’re all in.” No question, Big Bear’s music is rich enough with meticulous subtleties, jarring surprises, primitive thralls, and postmodern thrills to engage any listener game for being, well, engaged. But imagine King Kong joining your book club and you start to understand why Big Bear aren’t always met with the reception some might think they deserve. Rather than name bands whom they may or may not sound like, let’s just say they exist as a branch of hardcore — though it’s more like a knot in the trunk. The melodies spelled out by Roston’s guitar and new addition Joanne Dill’s sweet Juno can only be likened to another language, one with foreign sounds and cadences. Meanwhile, the way the engine of Jonathan Sparks on drums and David Altman on bass propels the songs forward without ever resorting to a groove seems to defy physics. At the center is vocalist Jordyn Bonds, who has broadened her awesomely disproportionate shriek of old into a forceful, soaring, breathless, desperate holler. And she still keeps time with a tambourine that she whacks against a skid of cardboard taped to her leg.

When Big Bear first started playing, in 2003, hardcore kids tried their hardcore best to embrace them, but it was like babies trying butterscotch. The band ended up getting bitched out on-line for not playing every VFW floorpunch fest they were offered — not doing this, not seeming that, and eventually (gasp!) not actually being hardcore at all! Although this rocky start didn’t derail their five subsequent years of successful shows with a like-minded cohort of Parts and Labor, Oneida, the Dirty Projectors, and Pterodactyl, it does illustrate the inherent problem of being a genre-bending band. They’re always the loudest ones on the bill or the weirdest ones in the basement. My two-year-old nephew thinks they sound like the sun.

They’ve had a similarly rough go at getting their music out and into the playlists of what could easily be legions of happy fans. When I enquire about their previous arrangements with Baltimore’s Monitor Records, Roston asks whether I’m familiar with the story of the Crucifixion. Their new songs are slated to be self-released on-line, in the hope of finding someone to press the vinyl — with any luck, in pink, like their last LP on Cardboard Records. For now, some new stuff has been posted to their MySpace page, judiciously filed under “Indie.”

Perhaps the biggest difference between Big Bear and a lot of hardcore is the most difficult one to make out. Compared with the “me versus you” dynamic and anti-everything-ism so frequently found at the louder end of the rock continuum, Big Bear’s lyrics are about uncertainty, apprehension, longing, and, most important, setting right what’s gone wrong. They’re not aggressively anti-suppressant; they’re oddly anti-depressant. “I don’t like that ‘you do this’ attitude,” says Bonds. “It would make it seem like I’m unaware of my own faults, and it just divides people.”

In any given Big Bear song, the lyrics could stand on their own; they resort to the repetitive wordplay of Gertrude Stein, the stark essentialism of George Oppen, and, as each song is titled only with a number, the tracty, impersonal allure of Wittgenstein. But when fitted to the music’s unchartable shapes, the words gain new life. Taunting two-syllable clusters carve through a combusting storm of guitar noise, a prepositional phrase rises and plummets, single words lock into relentlessly crashing waves of what sure feels like dissonance but isn’t, not exactly. Despite their aggression, the songs are peppered with questions, cautions, little doubts. Bonds’s words are utterly atypical, repeatedly refreshing, and brazenly up front with their esoteric lines of inquiry. No other band in town can fuse abstraction with such brute realism.

“If I were to get honest about it, I think I’m addressing myself,” says Bonds. “I think I’m constantly inviting myself to feel safe being close to people, to put myself out there and be vulnerable. And I’m hoping that if I extend myself that invitation, others will invite themselves along too.”

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  Topics: Music Features , Joanne Dill , Gertrude Stein , Dirty Projectors ,  More more >
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