March 10, 2005

Bear Claw "Finds the Sun"

Chicago trio Bear Claw takes its name from a hometown dessert that is usually made from a sweet yeast dough or Danish pastry dough. Three or four small cuts are made in the pastry, which is then gently bent and spread to form the likeness of a bear claw. I didn’t know that such a dessert existed until I did further research on the band after listening to their debut album Find the Sun a couple of times. When I first heard their angry, coarse music I thought that their band name was meant to evoke danger or violence. I imagined a bear tearing a zealous hunter to pieces after being rudely awakened from its hibernation. The style of music that Bear Claw plays is the last thing one would expect from a band named after a dessert. After reading the album’s lyric sheet, though, the choice of nomenclature makes a bit more sense. Underneath all the shouting and distortion, the songs on Find the Sun are motivated by a forlorn sense of reflection that is occasionally sweet, and frequently veers dangerously close to “emo.”

Bassist Rich Fossler and drummer Scott Picco spend the first two minutes of opening track “Repetition” screaming like bipolar carnival barkers. “These broken lines lie dead,” they shout, “like flowers once alive with beauty but now shriveled to nearly nothing.” I expect lyrics like that to be nasally sung by the lead singer of a pubescent Hot Topic faux-punk band, but Fossler and Picco imbue these words with an intensity that makes them sound like bar-fight intimidation. Occasionally, the lyrics make a more obvious fit with the furious vocal delivery. On “832,” they make a vow of vengeance against a two-faced antagonist: “Two can play the game of smiley glad-hand, and I’m gladly going to shove my hand straight up your ass!” More often than not, though, Fossler’s and Picco’s Fugazi-like vocal tug of war is employed in service of florid high school poetry. The chorus of “Jigsaw” is a cliched plea for salvation: “I believe you can help me to find my wings again/I believe in you/Please teach me to fly.”

Find the Sun will be a much more rewarding listen for people who don’t bother to read lyric sheets. They’ll focus more on the power and dexterity of the band’s instrumental attack. Bear Claw consists of two bassists and a drummer, an unconventional configuration that has inspired many inaccurate comparisons to another Chicago band, Dianogah. Unlike Dianogah, though, Bear Claw hold no jazz ambitions, and they’re much more eager to coat their songs in noise and distortion. Fossler and second bassist Rob Raspolich fill the songs with more than enough harmonized riffs, fleet-fingered arpeggios and jarring sound effects to compensate for the absence of a guitar. On some songs, such as “Jigsaw” and “Without the Sun,” you’ll swear that they’ve buried a guitar or two in the mix, but Steve Albini’s trademark no-frills engineering style leaves enough space in the music to convince you otherwise.

I find it ironic that the album’s second song, “Sorry I Must Have Forgot My Ticket,” takes potshots at trend-hopping scenesters. “Try to learn sometime,” they shout, “music’s not a fashion line.” Bear Claw get away with such chastisement only because the jagged, uniquely Midwestern post-punk they play went out of style years ago (although the recent reformation of Slint might make me rethink this assertion soon). If Find the Sun was released in 1996, they themselves might be looked down on as sonic opportunists. Hopefully, Bear Claw’s decision to stay slightly behind the times will enable their music to be evaluated on its own merit. I look forward to their next CD, even if it means I have to keep the booklet closed while listening to it.

---Sean Padilla

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