Since its 2001 debut EP This Is What I Know About Being Gigantic and 2002 debut CD Highly Refined Pirates, Minus The Bear has become known not only as an electrifying experimental indie rock/post-punk band but as one of Seattle’s best kept secrets. [That may be changing however, with appearances and exposure on MTV2, SPIN.com and late night TV this year.] This still largely underground phenomenon continued to grow its fan base with subsequent releases, including 2005’s Menos El Oso disc. On its third album, 2007’s Planet Of Ice, MTB continued to thrive as a creative force, but also recorded something somewhat conventional, yet rarely heard in the band’s catalogue, an acoustic guitar-propelled track called “Part 2.” Perhaps this was a sign of things to come.
This past summer, the band performed a few songs acoustically for the Daytrotter website. Perhaps inspired by the performance, Minus The Bear has now begun selling a brand new EP entitled Acoustics (Tigre Blanco Records) online through Amazon.com, iTunes, and Emusic as of October 7 and at its shows as of October 8.
The first of the seven tracks on this first-ever, all-acoustic release by MTB is a brand new tune called “Guns & Ammo.” And it’s a mixed bag. Hearing relatively quiet drumming (i.e. rim shots) and low-level, effect pedal-less keyboard/synthesizer work is a different experience for the average Minus The Bear fan, but is worth getting used to on this release. And on this track, though the first couple of minutes aren’t all that catchy, just wait ‘til its halfway point when the low-harmonized vocals come in (hear: “‘round and ‘round” part). From there, everything from the progressive double guitar melodies to the steadily moving bass lines (courtesy of Cory Murchy) and increasingly active drum parts keeps your ears perked up until the song fades out at the four-minute mark. Thus, it’s a good but not great start.
Four other tracks on the EP are reworked versions of songs from Planet Of Ice, Minus The Bear’s most recent studio album, while there is one track each from its first two albums, the aforementioned Highly Refined Pirates CD and Menos El Oso. I’ll get to those two later.
“Burying Luck,” formerly the whammy/octave-pedal-propelled opener on Planet, gets stripped of lead guitarist Dave Knudson’s inventive guitar effects, but none of its emotion. True, singer/guitarist Jake Snider sings instead of yelling the lyric: “What have you done.” Instead, Snider sings about his personal anger in a high-pitched tenor, in-tune and to the highest range he possibly can. On the music side of things, fancy electronic effects found on the album version are replaced by rare and prominent piano-playing by keyboardist Alex Rose. Tight start-stop rhythms and dual descending guitar runs from opposite ends of the fretboard also characterize the type of effort MTB puts into its melodies.
Similar types of tightly played single-note dual guitar riffs by Snider and Knudson highlight another EP (and Planet) standout “Knights,” a track the band performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live this past summer. Also performed on that late night show was another Planet standout, the cheerful math rocker “Throwin’ Shapes.” On the acoustic version, drummer Erin Tate slows down the song’s tempo considerably, which enhances rather than hamper’s the tune’s bouncy – in the vein of Vampire Weekend – character, as it allows the other instruments to stand out a little more.
On personal favorite “Ice Monsters,” Knudson and Snider, instead of playing the carefully crafted three-part intro/verse riffs on acoustic guitar the same way they played them on electric guitar on the album – hitting the same exact notes but playing them an octave apart from each other – Knudson plays the main melody by himself while Snider plays brighter, bittersweet riffs higher up on his acoustic. On top of that, Rose layers some quiet Rhodes-ish piano chords of his own. In all, this is a fitting version of a song about among other things, convincing a dude to get over losing a girl.
Fans eager to hear how MTB translates some of its earlier work to acoustic guitar only get two old tracks. Both have their own unique characteristics, but one is better than the other. From the Pirates CD is “We Are Not A Football Team,” a song with an amusing, nonsensical title – Minus The Bear was known for quite a while as the band with funny song names and album titles. On Acoustics, gone are the echo-laden guitar and vocal parts that gave this song – another one about girls – its romantic, twilight-like feel. You might miss those qualities, but Knudson’s harmonic guitar work and the band’s super melodic bridge section are the tune’s true highlights. Thus, the acoustic version is a winner.
“Pachuca Sunrise,” from Menos El Oso, has an almost totally different rhythm and sound to it on acoustic; gone are the danceable beats in the chorus and Knudson’s delay/echo and other high-pitched guitar effects that characterized the song. The little bit of improvised jamming Knudson and Snider do toward the song’s end is a plus, but overall, the album version is the better of the two and moves you more, IMO.
All told, Minus The Bear performed practically flawless acoustic versions of all seven songs. But with a band as creative as this one is, there is a risk to stripping down one’s sound. Sure, it can open up a whole new side and feeling of a song never experienced before. Or, it can make the music sound too bland, lose its edge (so to speak), and too different from the original version you loved. For the most part, MTB’s new renditions are refreshing and repeat-worthy. On only a couple of occasions does a song seem less than great (as on the okay new song “Guns & Ammo”) or abandon too much of a beloved song’s core characteristics (“Pachuca Sunrise”).
Bottom line: Minus The Bear’s Acoustics EP is, by and large, a bold and successful experiment. Anyone who has been riveted by this band’s studio output or shows has to have it. You won’t be disappointed. In fact, you may find yourself wanting more acoustic Minus The Bear, maybe a whole album’s worth. In the meantime, pick up this EP at a show near you or grab the digital version now if you don't have that kind of patience.
To catch Minus The Bear on its cross-country tour of the U.S. from now through November, visit their website.