Minus the Bear, Plus Funk

Minus The Bear is quickly proving to be one of the most original bands emerging from the indie/mathrock/post-rock scene. The Seattle, WA quintet released their fourth studio album, “Omni,” on May 4, 2010, blending the idiosyncratic indie sensibility of their previous three albums with a pop overtone that makes this their most uniquely accessible album to date.

“Omni” is big. It opens with a reverberating drumbeat on the track “My Time” that quickly crescendos, giving way to a blazing riff of synth keyboards and guitars. It quickly escalates into a wall of sound, overwhelming the ears as singer Jake Snider begins to sing, “turn off the lights, and touch me in the dark / fade into the feeling.” From there, the song charges ahead, settling into a tightly knit, funky pop groove. It’s incredibly catchy.

This big pop sound carries throughout the album, underlying almost every track. And it should. This is Minus The Bear’s first release off of the Silver Lake/Sunset Junction-based independent label Dangerbird Records. It’s as if some of the area’s hipster vibe – the winding, sunny streets lined with coffee shops and boutiques – has infused itself into the sound without any pretentions.

Each track on “Omni” was recorded in continuous takes, meaning that each of the five musicians were spurred by their producer, Joe Chiccarelli, to record each song as single takes with each of them playing at the same time. This is a refreshing change from the usual approach of recording several separate takes and piecing the segments together. The effects are astounding, giving the album the raw energy of a live concert without the crazed noise of a crowd blotting out the music.

In spite of these departures, the sound on this new album stays faithful to the roots laid down by the previous three as often as it explores new territory. Tracks like “Hold Me Down,” “Into The Mirror,” and “Animal Backwards,” feature an experimental sound more in line with Minus The Bear’s indie roots, standing in stark contrast to the pulsating funk beats of “My Time.” This helps create a balanced stylistic arc throughout the album.

Unfortunately, this quality and balance of the instrumentation cannot always be found in the lyrics.

As always, singer Jack Snider’s lyrics are suggestive, full of sexual charge, yet still colored with enough ambiguity to avoid being crass or distasteful. The appeal of Snider’s songwriting on “Omni,” however, isn’t due to any particular cleverness. Though most of his lyrics are good, some are uninspired and clichéd.

On the album’s fifth track “Excuses,” Snider sings, “Runnin’ out of excuses / When we know what the truth is / I’m into you, I’m into you.” Although boring, uninspired or otherwise uninteresting lyrics like these don’t bring down the whole album, they are enough to keep the listeners from becoming completely absorbed by the music.

And yet, the music on “Excuses” is some of the best on the album. It starts with a tinkling guitar riff. The drums come in, cymbals first; the second guitar and a bass line linger on the back end; and as each of the instruments come in, they create their own distinct layers of sound, with Snider’s voice floating above it all. With an arrangement this good, the lyrics almost don’t matter. The rich sound, the intricate interplay between each instrument tries to take the foreground as you forget what you are listening to, adrift in a sea of sound.

Take “Omni” for what it is and it does not disappoint. Minus the Bear builds with layers of funk and indie-rock to create this ambitious, though flawed, album. Above all else, this album showcases Minus The Bear’s efforts to stay ahead of the pack of run-of-the-mill indie bands, to remain on the move, all the while delivering a good jam.

This album cries out to be listened to over and over again, and with its catchy combination of funk, pop, and indie-rock, it doesn’t get tiring. On the album’s fourth track, “Hold Me Down,” Snider sings, “And I’m in the wind / I am going to let it take me where it may / Maybe it lifts me to New Orleans / Or the dark streets of L.A.” If you choose to take a trip with “Omni” – whether you buy it, borrow it from a friend, or find it streaming for free at the KCRW website – who knows where these sounds may take you?