Bear’s Den – Blue Hours : Album Review

Bear’s Den return with new toys and new songs delivering the same reliable expectations from the contenders.

Release date: 13th May 2022

Label: Communion

Format: CD / Vinyl / Cassette / Digital

I really love Bear’s Den and can never quite understand why they are not huge. Sure, they are quite big, as in the sense of decent sized venues, in decent sized towns, but always a step away from breaking completely through. I’m not sure quite what hold them back: is it the undeniable folk influences that pervade their work, is it the (shhh) banjo that is an essential occasional ingredient, or is it the trumpets? OK, so such maybe doesn’t make for standard chart fare, but the knack they have of weaving these sometimes disparate tones into a meticulous weave of sensitive songs, underlaid with a musical heft, that is idiosyncratic and delightful, with, four albums in, a sense of development. This is number five and is it the one?

The band are nominally just two lads, Andrew Davie and Kevin Jones, both burly and both bearded, one who sings and strums, the other a dab on just about any instrument you can name, but both live and on record they are augmented by a crack team of players, most associated around and about the band for some time, touting the aforesaid banjo and trumpets, as well as keyboards, guitars, bass and drums. A recent review of someone else commented on a keyboard player touting also a trumpet, simultaneously. Get this, these guys have a drummer, Jools Owen, who can keep rhythm with three of his limbs, parping with the fourth and his mouth. Reference points are difficult, with perhaps the closest being Manchester Orchestra, also adept purveyors of searching songs on serious concerns, sung with soul and yearning. Blue Hours is both the name of the album and a Moroccan hotel the band stayed at, as well as being their conceptual context for the imaginary headspace where self-reflection can take place. And does, giving a flavour of the lyrical subjects here explored.

It is the title track that opens proceedings, and already something is a bit a different. Is that a drum machine underthrobbing the insistent root bassline driving the rhythm, already more insistent than previous fare? But, as the guitars come a’chiming in, together with the familiarity of Davie’s always Scots inflected vocal, it is unmistakably the Den. (A London band, and with speaking voices as such, the name of the band and the sung diction belie the lineage of both band members. Bear’s Den, Bearsden? It’s in Glasgow, geddit?) I can’t quite unravel the songs theme, but am assured it relates to the pandemic, impending fatherhood (for both of them) and also moving out of London. Growing up, perhaps? The trumpet chorale appears, mid song, a sense of continuity and of reassurance. Not jazz, not mariachi, this is trumpet as in Vaughan-Williams, or a silver band, a warm and pastoral immersion.

Frightened Whispers follows, and again the new toy is employed in the percussion, with an arpeggiating synthesiser bubbling modular patterns in the foreground, another new addition to their palette, the sequenced sounds balanced by their ubiquitously anxious vocal refrains of being frightened and falling apart still present, an assurance this is the same band. Gratitude also starts with a synthesiser undercurrent permeating the whole, a song that explores grief from the point of view of gratitude, for having the things and people you have lost, rather than just the self-pity they have gone. A powerful song, it is classic of their style of songbook, if in the shinier new electronic clothes. Piano is the entry for Shadows, a ballad very much in the style of Crow, from So That You Might Hear Me, their last album, and is a quiet, growing beauty of a song, with a gradual build, real drums slotting in alongside the sequenced synth, and then some glorious strings from Paul Frith, who orchestrated the interim release of old songs, repackaged and reformatted with a string section, last year’s Fragments. And some brass to add the icing.

All That You Are is one of the gulp songs they do so well. “I hope you find someone who loves you for all that you are, I hope I find someone who’ll love me for all that I am”. A slight melody, the weight is from the lyrics, the arrangement also allowing the tune, such as it is, to expand, Frith’s strings again prominent. Spiders, one of the songs to have had some considerable pre-release build, is another opportunity to show their new clothes, a typically angsty vocal allied to a seismic, motorik beat, largely electronic. Spiders? The idea is that change of scenery never removes the innate fears that will always travel with you.

Selective Memories is a real highlight, again with the organic/electronic mix and match, a song about Davie’s mother and the development of her dementia. Portrayed as a matter of fact observation, leavened with hope, it is a song that bears repeated listens, the trumpet, or it it synth, that echoes mournfully, is moving and wonderful. Another one for the greatest hits. Shimmers of sound meet with twangy guitar for On Your Side, one of the songs here I can envisage fitting into the live show, a concern being that some other of these little epics may translate with difficulty, if only from the point of view of keeping all hands usefully on deck. The final flourish come with All The Wrong Places, muted drum machine and Davie’s vocal near alone, synth swathing sonorously in the middle distance, ahead a slow build of piano chords and strings. A thoughtful and reflective end to an album that is built on the same designs.

The first time I listened to Blue Hours, I felt it a misstep, it taking a listen or three for the content to seep in and show the incipient quality, and to show this to be a progression rather than any other pretext.(To be fair, I thought this also of So That You Might Hear Me, hearing too much strident guitar at first, ahead of it settling, so what do I know.) It’s true, at least as far as this studio product goes, I see little use of the permanent hired hands of the band, hearing especially nothing, overtly at least, of Christof Van Der Den, or his evocative banjo. On Facebook the band have made much of the full band membership beyond the core duo, with a run of daily posts expounding their individual values. Is it that the live presentation of these songs will differ so as to more fully engage that set-up? On tour in Europe this last month, they kick off soon in the UK. I, for one, can’t wait to see how this pans out. To be honest, I can’t wait anyway. Repeated listens tells me I still love the b(r)and. Time will tell whether they will be taken to a wider bosom.

Listen to All The Your Are from Bear’s Den below.

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