I first got a feel for The Bears of Blue River when I saw them open for Canasta and Elsinore some time ago in Lincoln Park. That show, which ended up being one of my favorites of 2010, happened to be one of my first shows in the city. My first time inside Lincoln Hall, anyway.
At the time, I had no idea who The Bears of Blue River were, but I remember really liking their name (still do) and I remember getting sucked in immediately to the friendly back and forth between vocalists Margaret and Gavin. There’s a chemistry that happens when their voices come together, and you get that on their records, too.
Even so, I came away that night thinking Margaret’s voice was underutilized as an instrument in that show and on their EP. And if this was apparent to the Bears, then for whatever reason it didn’t matter or they were intentional in merely sprinkling their tunes with her pretty.
Following up that EP is a superior full-length called Dames. I like it for many reasons, but mostly because Margaret’s range gets stretched a bit and she sounds better than I remember. As well, she’s given more time on the record to show it.
Now, Margaret has been a supporting voice for Gavin for as long as I’ve been a listener, but that’s less obvious on Dames than it was on Killer Bee Scare. From the start, on lead track “Boy Toy,” Margaret croons about as long as Gavin does, and — again — their back and forth is some good magic. She hits notes she wasn’t afforded before, actually, at the climax marked at 3:10 or so.
(On an unrelated note, props to the Bears for tossing out “spinster.” It’s a snazzy word of yore that we don’t see (or hear) too much anymore.)
Next to more Margaret — in “The Wringer,” even, she grabs the mic before Gavin and then carries the song through the end — The Bears of Blue River have gotten louder. It’s purposeful, too. Not merely for show.
On their EP they packed an electric guitar, but it was real quiet. Here on Dames they let the electric go and let it breathe (see “On My Knees” and “The Joke.”) The effect doesn’t overwhelm, but works to supplement their easy sound by adding a kick to the album’s climatic builds. In that sense the group is more dynamic, a true sign of maturity. (An overused designation, I know, but it fits here.)
What I can’t wrap my head around, though, is why that progress is undercut by — in my mind — senseless vulgarities affixed to the ends of a handful of tracks. They’re in the form of a male voice saying things like how long ago, a video game was fornication. In another, he spits out a few words and then belches. These disturbances really stomp on the music, and after a few spins, I can’t determine their purpose.
Minus that, Dames is a pleasing followup to Killer Bee Scare and, actually, Bears’ first attempt at a full-length. They done good in marking out territory with an EP, and then honing that sound for issue two.
- The Bears of Blue River, based in Chicago, is: Gavin Ellis Wilkinson, Justin Allen Spring, Margaret Alexandra Gard and Brian Michael Swoveland.
- Dames is streaming free on Bandcamp. Or, name a price and it’s yours.
- The Bears of Blue River play Subterranean on December 8 (openers: Julie Meckler, Kellen & Me and Belleilse). Tickets are $10.