Show Preview/Album Review: The Wandering Bears at The Mill, 9/24/11

Iowa City’s The Wandering Bears are self-described as “two pretty ladies and three smelly dudes”, and are comprised of members of local bands The Western Front and The Vagabonds. Sarah, Sam, Drew, Mitch, Arlen, and David are experienced and accomplished musicians, and they each play in various band projects because they love making music.

The Wandering Bears admit to a serious addiction to Paul Simon and Fleetwood Mac, and though their august influence is felt in the Bears’ music, the Bears blaze their own trail with organic and beautiful pop songs–with a smirk.

And quite a trail they’ve blazed, too. They tour as much as possible–which is difficult when your band members have several active projects, including supporting Minneapolis’ excellent Caroline Smith & the Goodnight Sleeps and Cloud Cult. Caroline’s influence is heard in the Bears’ music as well, especially in Sarah’s and Sam’s sweet tones and wry delivery. The Wandering Bears have embarked on a national tour this summer, visiting 12 states in the midwest and northeast.

The Wandering Bears will play this Saturday, Sept. 24, at the Mill, sharing a fantastic bill with Iowa City’s Datagun and opening for Caroline Smith & the Goodnight Sleeps.  The show starts at 9:00 p.m.; tickets are $8 and may be purchased here. This may be their last show for a while, as singer Sam Blickham is leaving IC for the wide, wild world.

Sarah takes center stage, and her voice takes your breath away. She sings with brass, with attitude, and with charisma, but her tone is also very smooth and nuanced. Comparisons are inevitable, but Sarah’s voice is softer than Stevie Nicks’ glorious feline caterwaul. Sam’s voice complements Sarah’s well; Sam sounds more vulnerable and sweet, and sometimes the rest of the band joins in wonderful harmony. The band is versatile, as the musicians may change up their instruments from song to song.  But, their music is remarkably tight; the Bears’ tunes often change tempo or style at will, without ever missing a beat.

I first saw The Wandering Bears open for Caroline Smith two years ago at the Mill for Mission Creek 2009. The ink was still wet on the first, self-titled record–literally, as Drew was hand-lettering the covers over at the bar. Six of the songs from that EP return on their newest record, Michael Cougar May…, along with four new tracks.

The Wandering Bears’ new record opens with “I Told You to Stop Talking”, an ambitious arrangement layering a droning synthesizer over tight rhythms and dreamy vocals. “Michael May Dances Like A Man” illustrates the strength of the Bears’ compositions; it is driven by a powerful piano line that weaves in and out during the instrumental breaks, and the whole tune has great structure and flow. “Dialectic” is a smooth and sad look back at what could have been, and the sadder realization of where we are now. The pop anthem “Take Care, Kiddo” is a sweet and witty goodbye tune, turning the tables on a broken heart through sarcasm, and is easily the best song on a great record (listen to it here: 04 – Take Care, Kiddo). “Tom Bodett Rearranges His Living Room” is a duet between the gals; their voices meld together perfectly and lend a classic sound like an Andrews Sisters oldie. “William S Burroughs Teaches Photography” begins with Sarah’s sweet lullaby voice, but quickly changes it up with a breakdown featuring tight drumming, piano hooks, and voice samples from Mr. Burroughs. A Jack White cover, “Never Far Away” is a country-style travellin’ tune, with its twangy blues guitar and references to “Carolina wind” and the “dirt between my heels and the road”. “Oh, Sorry! Sir” has a catchy chorus, sweet duets, and a two-step beat, before closing with a rocking ending. With a strumming ukulele and slow beat, “The Good Children” resembles an old-time folk tune, while “The Only Thing That Won’t Fit In Your Bag” closes the album with syncopated piano and glorious, whole-band harmony.

The attention to detail is remarkable, as the Bears’ music resists the urge to be predictable or simple. They may be influenced by indie-pop groups like Rilo Kiley or Neko Case, and they’re definitely into literature–witness the quirky song titles. The Wandering Bears craft smart, unique pop tunes with substance and catchy hooks. Their music is well-constructed and interesting, and the lyrics are quirky and clever without being obtuse. Their songs are about men and women and the stupid things we do to each other, but with a mix of sweet reminiscence, real heartbreak, and a healthy attitude of just movin’ on. Michael Cougar May…captures the positive energy and snarky outlook of Iowa City’s The Wandering Bears, and is a must-have album for lovers of indie-pop and local music.

Catch the Wandering Bears at the Mill this Saturday, pick up a copy of Michael Cougar May…, and wish the band well on their future endeavors!