It’s easy, if you live in Iowa City, to look upon Ames with pity larded with contempt. You’re conditioned to cringe at yellow and red. You hear “Ames” and immediately think “thick-necked Ag majors.” You don’t much like the men of Iowa State either.
Which of course is unfair, and Strong Like Bear’s Seeking Ghosts EP proves there’s some good things going on in Ames, at least in the music scene. Despite the whimsy of their name (always say it with a fake Russian accent!) the songs on Seeking Ghosts are pretty earnest, or maybe earnestly pretty. An Iowa City band might be tempted to take these songs and include some screaming, feedback freakouts or theremin solos, but Strong Like Bear seems intent on staying out of the way of the songs.
The arrangements are kept simple but sufficient–guitars, bass, drums and voice. The singing is pretty plain as well, but in that late-‘80s indie way: write a good lyric, set it to a serviceable melody and then do your best to enunciate and hit the notes. And yet, on the opener “Trust In Me” they sing the chorus in close harmony, so you know they’re not amateurs.
The most adventurous arrangement is on “Valley of the 9s,” which pairs a sampled tick-tock rhythm with electric piano, before the vocal arrives. I immediately thought of Radiohead (they even manage a nicely done saxaphone freakout at the end of the song) but the song works on its own terms. Without sounding derivative or dated, most of Seeking Ghosts would have fit into the mid-’80s rotation on KRUI with REM, the Replacements, and Throwing Muses, and that’s not a bad crowd to be hanging with.