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The Moonbears
Let's Get Nice With... Stevie Chick , May 18th, 2017 13:36

The world has soiled its collective britches. Newspaper headlines outshine dystopian fiction for sleep-stealing scenarios. The trolls have crawled out from under the bridge and taken control of the political mainframe. Empathy – for your common (wo)man, for society’s downtrodden, for literally anyone who can have a soulless LOL draped upon their shoulders (literally anyone, then) – is in perilously short supply. In the absence of solutions to all these problems, I’ll take a warm, meaningful embrace in their place.

The Moonbears’ second album is just such an embrace. Listen to its hopeful hard-luck stories, to the sweet break in Neil Kulkarni’s voice as he crests the higher notes, to the happy-sad, psychedelic sitcom theme melodies, to its open-hearted tenor. The Moonbears know. The Moonbears get it. The Moonbears feel it like you do. One of the more provocative music critics of the last twenty years (and also the best), Kulkarni is best known for composing insightful and inciteful raptures upon ear-mangling noise of all stripes, and hip-hop in particular. This is the man who suggested all of The Jesus Lizard’s horrific din was motivated by homosexual terror. To David Yow’s face.

The Moonbears’ second album, then, is probably not the music those familiar with his writing might expect from Kulkarni. The Moonbears don’t deal in cochlea-scouring noise, in cave-quaking beats or thesaurus-burning braggadocio. The Moonbears make great big colourful SONGS, smeared in sweet-hearted organ, driven by siren saxophones, sung in a voice that echoes generations of deadpan British pop eccentrics: yer Ray Davieses, yer Robert Wyatts, yer Terry Halls.

And this’ll probably rankle a man whose controversial F.U.N.K. (Fuck You Neil Kulkarni) blog has accrued angry clicks clowning the NME and their sacred indie-pop cows, but it’s not hard to imagine that, if Let’s Get Nice With… had arrived a quarter century or so ago, its loving mishmash of Bowie-esque glam, Roxy-flavoured weirdness, Village Green-era Kinks-y storytelling, and even the tear-stricken clown-pop of Madness’s middle-period would’ve risen with the Britpop tide. Albeit the anti-cagoules-and-Gazelles, pro-humanist, Boo Radleys/Pulp wing of the movement, but, to extend a theme, his understated ache is exactly the kind of “soulful” Damon Albarn was striving for on the likes of Tender. Not that I’m suggesting Moonbears are perverse Britpop revivalists, but they riffle through a similar charity shop of references, even if the carnivalesque sounds that result suggest the colliding-scope of that second Soft Machine album compressed into digestible four-minute pastilles of heart-smashing whimsy.

It’s what they do with them that counts, of course, and Let’s Get Nice With… puts its glammy, psych-y, soft-y pop in service of homely stories of micro-level struggles and the real, unglamorous grit of relationships and responsibilities – the ones that, when told properly, yield non-sentimental wisdoms, like Frank Capra refracted via the lens of The Likely Lads and Tony Hancock. The Moonbears scored a more-modest-than-it-should’ve-been viral YouTube “thing” with their ‘We Can’t Spoil Christmas’ a few years back, a song that trod a most-trick tightrope – folding a Slade-esque love for the festive season into its kitchen sink admission that, yes, Christmas is actually mad stressful and if you get through it without hating everything and everyone you’re a better man than I, Gunga Din. The song’s genius twist, though, was suggesting that the grimness of Xmas was also part of its magic, the salt-round-the-rim of its margarita – you can’t have one without the other. There’s no cola without calories. Suck it up and savour the feels.

Let’s Get Nice With…, then, repeats that trick eleven different ways, smartly enough that the trick seduces you every time. The Moonbears live in the same world as you and I – they aren’t spinning any wild Xanadu fantasies, the rent’s too damn high and happiness is something you snatch in between long stretches of sadness. And that’s what makes happiness so precious – a dilemma They Might Be Giants once expressed as “Nobody in the world ever gets what they want, and that is beautiful.” There’s no moping here, though – Kulkarni and Kompatriots get philosophical in the least-overbearing, most delicious manner possible, and carve swollen, gleeful, righteous pop from the melee. ‘New Bruise ‘sounds like Eno-era Roxy chugging their way through George Benson’s ‘Never Give Up On A Good Thing’ – soulful, wilful, weird and wonderful, the saxophone bleating sweet-hearted transmissions to the outer reaches. The Bowie-esque strut of ‘Do This To Death’, meanwhile, is an anthem to Sticking At It, but with an understanding that Doing So Can Slowly Kill You, but with a resolve of Fuck It, I’m Doing It Anyway. As Mr Smith once opined, lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for.

It’s this sentiment – not sentimentality, that’s another thing altogether – that motivates Let’s Get Nice With…, though its not all brave-faces-on-sad-feelings: the skulking, bruised ‘I Guess I’ll Keep Quiet’ transmits from a darker, more troubling place. But these are the games these songs play, and if you were worrying that pop music by a pop critic might just be a cold, clinical reshuffling of well-thumbed-up reference points, rest assured that this is an album with too big a heart to bother looking cool. “There was joy and madness and all kinds of sadness / and then there was you / Feeling so alone, in a house that’s not a home / and then there was you,” Kulkarni croons, on ‘Agent 4 Is Summoned In Green Ink’, a song that I’m going to presume is about parenthood, because I can, and because it echoes how I feel about parenthood, too. Moments later, he’s ruminating upon how “There’s four dimensions in one tear,” and it’s no surprise that he’s familiar with the kaleidoscopic depths of joy and sadness – they live in his songs.

So this is pop, then, with no sense of time and space and place, but awash with a whole bunch of joy, tapping away at the pleasure receptors and tugging at the heartstrings with no cynical intentions, no duplicitous impulses, but just because if you got feelers then it stands to reason you got feelings, too. And there’s lots out there who’ll deny that simple fact, in their breathless grabbing to get somewhere else and get someone else’s. But The Moonbears get it. The Moonbears get that the world’s a mess, and that sometimes all you need is someone to look over at you and say, ‘Yeah, doesn’t it suck? But you’re not alone.’

And that’s when The Moonbears get you.