THE BEARS: THE BEARS (1987)
1) None Of The Above; 2) Fear Is Never Boring; 3) Honey Bee; 4) Man Behind The Curtain; 5) Wavelength; 6) Trust; 7) Raining; 8) Superboy; 9) Meet Me In The Dark; 10) Figure It Out.
Stuck somewhere in the cracks between Adrian Belew's tenure in King Crimson and his mildly successful solo career is that particular part of his life which was spent as a member of The Bears — not a very small part, either, considering that they managed to put out four studio albums, one live record, and dedicate quite a bit of their lives to touring. Unfortunately, they generated next to no publicity: apparently, people were more prone to perking up at the words «Adrian Belew» than willing to listen to a band called «The Bears».
Too bad, because there is some delightful pop music to be found on these records. As it turns out, The Bears were the first proper polygon upon which Adrian dared to test out his pop instincts. Originally, they were not The Bears, but «The Raisins», a Cincinnati-based pop group that included Rob Fetters on guitar, Bob Nyswonger on bass, and a couple other guys who didn't make it further: Adrian, who was at the time still an active part of the KC lineup and also fiddled around with the first, half-pop, half-avantgarde stage of his solo career, befriended them and produced their first and last LP in 1983. After it flopped, the band fell apart, and out of the ashes of The Raisins, with the addition of drummer Chris Arduser, rose The Bears — a band in which Adrian Belew, the famous inventive-progressive guitar-wiz kid, would feel right at home going «all-out pop» without the fans snickering or spewing behind his back.
Now there is nothing all that special about this particular brand of guitar-based pop that The Bears profess — but let me tell you that these songs, all ten of them, are every bit as solid as any random lost-genius «power pop» band from the Eighties, mussed and sused over by the retro-hipster crowds. In fact, it might even be better than most, considering how consistently strong the hooks are: the vocal melodies, provided by Adrian and Rob Fetters, always latch on to some emotional center or other, and although they are rarely supported by equally strong instrumental hooks, the overall guitar sound, produced by the regular Adrian Belew Sound Factory, is always tasteful and creative.
More than that, The Bears pride themselves on writing mildly intelligent, easily understandable, decidedly «un-artsy» lyrics, usually with a social message, and delivering them in an easy, down-to-earth manner that should be quite seductive for all those who fidget at the sight of pretentiousness or «intentional inaccessibility». The very first song, ʽNone Of The Aboveʼ, is a manifesto of sorts: "Top ten well dressed men... epitome of taste... always willing, always hot, all these things I am not". Fetters' thin-voiced "none of the above, none of the above...", wimpy and sarcastic at the same time, echoed by Belew's equally thin and evilly cackling guitar line, reminds me of some of Pete Townshend's solo material, except The Bears, by definition, are unable to convey the same heartfelt pessimism and bitterness as Pete does — they're too cheery by nature to do that, and even their anger always comes with a smile.
Instrumentally, they are gifted enough to set up a friendly funky groove, as on ʽFear Is Never Boringʼ (a re-recording of a mini-minor hit they had in 1983 as The Raisins), and sometimes add a brass section to fatten up the sound (ʽHoney Beeʼ, ʽFigure It Outʼ), perhaps as a tribute to the long-gone glam-rock era or because somebody just wanted to play some sax, I dunno. If Adrian wants to, he can provide plenty of guitar overdubs for an «epic» sound (as he does in the introduction to ʽTrustʼ), but ultimately, the idea is to depart from «pop» as rarely as possible — and when they do it, it is usually in order to indulge in Ade's psychedelic soloing (said ʽTrustʼ includes a lengthy and quite melodic passage constructed out of backward-recorded notes).
Ultimately, the one thing that separates The Bears from Adrian's solo career is that most of the choruses, and even many of the verses are sung by Belew and Fetters in unison, and sometimes they are also joined by the drummer (and sometimes there may only be one of them, but he's double-tracked anyway). This seems to be intentionally done in order to give the album a more «group» feeling, à la early Beatles and all, but the two gentlemen are not as expertly synchronized in tone and mood as Lennon and McCartney, and the combination of their overtones does not result in anything noticeably better than their individual tones. Had they worked more creatively on their vocals, this might have given the record a kick in the diversity area — as it is, its economic 34 minutes paradoxically feel much longer, a problem not atypical of the usual retro-pop approach, in the Eighties or at any later date, but one which a guy of Belew's level of intellect and giftedness might have easily avoided. Then again, he probably did not want to avoid it: The Bears were set up as a bona fide «niche band», and The Bears is appropriately a «niche album», and you have to take it or leave it, and under these circumstances I most certainly take it, and gratefully award it a friendly thumbs up.