Seems like the two largest trends in alt-rock these days are guitar-based cleverness (cf. the Kenneth Cole penny-loafer pop of Vampire Weekend) and the nü-rave sincerity gushing from the psyche of synth-laden units (cf. Passion Pit, Foster The People). Fortunately, Distraction, the second album from Brooklyn, New York’s Bear Hands is the perfect antidote for listeners weary of these kinds of outfits encroaching into the world daily. Ironically, by combining aspects of those two camps and dosing the results with far more character, frontman/guitarist/keyboardist Dylan Rau, guitarist Ted Feldman, bassist Val Loper and drummer TJ Orscher forged their own aesthetic path instead of blatantly appealing to any specific subculture. Which explains why Distraction is teeming with pop sensibility, textural smarts, rhythmic drive and mise en scené narratives.
The opener, “Moments Of Silence,” starts with layers of prog-rock synth and Mellotron as Rau delivers a persona that’s Machiavelli, Nietezche and a NYC street prophet rolled into one, just as the synthesizers take on a pulsing ’80s-rock melodic urgency. It segues nicely into the semi-frantic “Giants,” a surreal love song (references to “shooting jayhawks” and a shout out to the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard) powered by Rau’s staccato sing-speak and Feldman’s chiming guitars, which show Johnny Marr how we do his kind of thing in America these days. Rau vacillates between cocky and cowering in “Agora,” possibly the best song about crippling personality disorder ever written, upping the neurosis with sweet cooing during the bridges. Rau uses that trick on the breathy and alluring “Vile Iowa,” where he intones, “You’re a star in my eyes” like he’s lying under the night sky on the hood of a rusted-out ’87 Monte Carlo with his best girl, drinking bottom-shelf vodka.
But Distraction isn’t entirely about subtle electronics and late-night listening: Loper and Orscher bring the rock fury on the furious “Peacekeeper,” as well as taking a more centered role in the rockin’ “Sleeping On The Floor.” (If it were 1989, this song alone could have had Bear Hands plastered on the cover of every British music mag.) The proceedings end with “Thought Wrong,” a downer of an out-of-love song, bolstered by a semi-urgent percussion track percolating under Rau’s wounded vocal, making the song sound hopelessly resigned, yet still fluctuating, like a heart still filled with hope.
So let’s break from debating about whether bands/artists/musicians are “indie,” “punk” and “sincere,” and focus whether or not the fuckers are actually good. Bear Hands are great—and they’re evolving faster than most of the stuff on your hard drive.