Bear’s Den flatter on Red Earth & Pouring Rain

Red Earth & Pouring RainRed Earth & Pouring Rain marks the return of Bear's Den, British alt-folk's heirs apparent, released on their founder's imprint. If you're not familiar with the name, Communion began life in 2006 as an "artist-led organisation", the dream of multi-instrumentalist Kevin Jones, Ben Lovett (Mumford & Sons), and producer Ian Grimble. In 2010, Communion Records was established, pressing the likes of Ben Howard, Daughter, Matt Corby and Nathaniel Rateliff. Now, you should already have a few genre tropes fizzing through your mind: gently picked guitar chords thrumming with reverb; perhaps a man's voice, nominally pruned from southern England, that somehow has a Californian twang to it. Most of all, if you've paid attention to the last decade's banjo-rock explosion whatsoever, there should be one word on the tip of your tongue: dear.

If that genre signpost sounds a derogatory tone - well, that's on you, reader. But it certainly sits more comfortably than "alt-folk" (not to be confused with anti-folk), defined by a prefix that denotes something underground, subversive and, frankly, alternative. For Bear's Den, now a creative duo following the departure of lead banjoist Joey Haynes earlier this year, it's a flexible concept. Red Earth's early tracks are packed with studious electronic flair, occasionally channeling the late-night spirit of M83 or even Chromatics, while "Emeralds" even offers a smattering of indie-pop jangle in its guitar lines. At several points, there are nods to the kind of hushed melancholy that some of their label-mates have traded in for strong returns, particularly the aforementioned Daughter.

But where Andrew Davie and Kevin Jones promise subtelty, they flatter to deceive. The album's middle section is bloated with a succession of overwrought torch songs, each conspiring to be more emotionally opulent than the last, each a stake raised in musical strip poker, where every layer pulled off reveals a less desirable figure beneath. In places, it just comes off as a little over-produced, as on the Frightened Rabbit indebted "Dew on the Vine". But the more they go for it - the more those rock ballad royalty cheques seem tantalisingly within reach - the more unpleasant things get. "Roses on a Breeze" arrives with a grace entirely befitting its Valentine's Day greeting card title, woah-oh-ohs cascading through lines such as "You'll always be the love of my life," presumably etched into the album artwork in an ostentatious gold cursive.

More than that, there's a certain tone of addressing women that's crept into this kind of music, and finds its apogee on "Love Can't Stand Alone". In its heart, it's a love song, offering help and consolation to a partner in distress. "I think of him from time to time," Davie sings, "just what it is he left behind... I'll never leave you out in the cold." As far as the subject matter goes, there's a fine line between emotional support and white knighting, and you can't help thinking across to songs like Okkervil River's "Black" that really get it right. All of which could be tolerated, but for the most unforgivable crime. Please, please stop calling your protagonists 'dear' and 'love' and (probably next) 'maiden'. You're not an 18th century romantic poet and, unless I'm really out of touch with the scene, nor are you a middle-aged alcoholic from Derby. Enough.

Release: 22nd July 2016, Communion Records


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