THE BEARS: CAR CAUGHT FIRE (2001)
1) Life In A Nutshell; 2) Under The Volcano; 3) When She Moves; 4) Mr. Bonaparte; 5) What's The Good Of Knowing; 6) Dave; 7) Caveman; 8) Waiting Room; 9) 117 Valley Drive; 10) Safe In Hell; 11) Success; 12) Sooner Or Later; 13) As You Are.
As Adrian's solo career finally took off and he found himself enjoying moderate success on his own, The Bears were put on hold while he was too busy dividing most of his time between his solo status and King Crimson. However, the split was not inimical, and throughout the 1990s, members of The Bears would frequently back him on his records and solo tours, while at the same time pursuing their own lines of work (for instance, dubbing themselves «the psychodots», with lowercase p, and even releasing an album with the same title).
By the time the 2000s rolled about, though, Adrian either got bored playing on his own, or he decided that, after all, «pure pop» was something that could be better created and enjoyed in the company of friends, whereas his solo ventures should be more experimental and «whacko». This hypothesis is indirectly supported by the fact that his Side One, etc. projects of 2004-05 would all be seriously avantgarde — whereas the resuscitated Bears' third album, Car Caught Fire, is every bit as pop-based as the first two. More interestingly, it is also better than the first two: in fact, it is easily the one Bears album to own if you want to quickly learn everything that this band is capable of.
Car Caught Fire does not sound very much like the Bears' first two albums with their «New Wave pop» sheen, «King-Crimson-made-accessible-to-the-masses» approach. Nor does it sound much like Belew's solo pop career from Mr. Music Head to Here, which was seriously retro-oriented. Instead, it sounds a little timeless (as, indeed, do quite a few, if not most, albums from the last decade and a half), borrowing a little from every decade and every style as long as it allows to write and record a decent, catchy, pretty pop song.
ʽLife In A Nutshellʼ, for instance, opens the album with a typically Belew-style twangy guitar riff, only to have it backed, within a few seconds, by an out-of-nowhere «swampy» harmonica part, and then sweetened up with an old-fashioned pop vocal melody. ʽUnder The Volcanoʼ, with Fetters (I think) on lead vocals, sounds like something Phil Collins could have done if he were into steady, rhythmic, guitar-based pop instead of drum machines and synthesizers, and, in addition, Belew wrings out a screechy, scratchy guitar solo that sounds more like John Cale's viola experiments on the Velvet Underground's first album than anything more human in nature. ʽWhen She Movesʼ sounds like... Tom Petty? All except the song's main seven-note riff, which seems taken from some quirky New Wave-era keyboard rock hit or something. And so on.
In other words, eclecticism is the norm — Car Caught Fire is as diverse as Rise And Shine was monotonous, and a detailed analysis of these songs would have me listing their possible influences from dawn till dusk. At the same time, it is all expertly and contemporarily produced, so that the album sounds no less modern than at least your Strokes or your Ash or whatever was popular in those days. Even if you want yourself some basic rock'n'roll with just a small touch of weirdness, you have your ʽCavemanʼ — a song about how we all really behave like cavemen (Belew's favorite subject) appropriately set to a grumbly, distorted hard rock riff, and with a specially designed chorus so we could all gleefully join the band singing "I'm a caveman, I'm a caveman!" without realising that the joke is on us.
It should probably be noted that Belew is by no means the primary songwriter: ʽCavemanʼ, for instance, is credited to Nyswonger, and on the whole, songwriting is more or less equally split between all of the band's members — and almost all of the songs have something to offer. It is hard to speak about individual styles: ʽLife In A Nutshellʼ, ʽMr. Bonaparteʼ, and ʽ117 Valley Driveʼ are probably identifiable as Belew songs by being based on unorthodox riffs, but the rest trade their various influences and quotations quite freely between different songwriters, which is absolutely no problem at all. Well, maybe a little bit of a problem, when acoustically based songs such as ʽDaveʼ bring their sound too perilously close to the sentimental side of the Barenaked Ladies — then again, this is almost inevitable with «nerdy» music like this when the authors decide that it is time for a little sentimentality.
That said, it is not much easier to write up a meaningful assessment of Car Caught Fire than it was the case for the previous albums — even while raising the stakes so high in terms of intelligence and pure entertainment, it still feels a little «empty». You cannot blame the lyrics, which are consistently decent and deal with real problems (internal and external), and you cannot blame the players, who seem genuinely driven by a desire to say something, and, formally speaking, they do. Still, something seems to be missing, and I cannot for the life of me determine what it is. Maybe it's some sort of «willingness to go all the way» or something: with all their variety and creativity, the songs seem to be holding themselves back, as if there were some kind of conflict here between the will to entertain and the will to do it in a cliché-avoiding manner. This may also be responsible for the fact that I have no idea what would be the «highlights» on here — not able to pinpoint even one absolute «favorite». Maybe ʽCavemanʼ, but that would be just because its hard rock riff separates it from the rest.
Anyway, it doesn't really matter, because the same kind of complaint could be addressed at just about anybody (hell, some people accuse The White Album of being a soulless mish-mash, too). As a pop album, it is at least better than any single Barenaked Ladies record, so that alone guarantees a thumbs up rating already (and I do like the Ladies when they are being fun and quirky, rather than trying to pump up seriousness).