2012 has seen the release of some terrific music. Folk rock found resurgence in the form of Barna Howard, Hip Hatchet and Angel Olsen. J. Tillman invented Father John Misty and offered poignant, tongue-in-cheek criticism of the current musical climate in a release so accessible and laden with guilty pleasures that it proved tough to put down. It took a legend like Bobby Womack to make an argument that there remains room for new strides within classic genres like R&B and soul. It has also been a strong year for experimental synth pop with releases from Purity Ring, Hot Chip and new projects like TEEN and Dusted. Along the way, bands like Tame Impala, Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear have left us with work that justifies their consideration among the elite acts of the last five years.
Strangely absent from the mix is a significant contribution to political discourse. Domestically, the political climate is as divided as any in our lifetime. Abroad we’ve witnessed the rise of a suddenly dynamic Middle East, with implications of further change imminent. Financial markets, the world over, continue to roil and gurgle like the belly of a middle-aged man with acid reflux disease. In the midst of it all, musicians – at least within independent rock and pop – have stayed largely silent, content to leave the discourse to the pundits.
There are certainly exceptions to the idea that “musicians aren’t talking politics anymore.” Hip hop remains a steady source of some of the most lucid and overt discussions of current events. Our own John Bugbee has covered several of the genre’s leading voices brilliantly in this space. (See his review of billy woods’ History Will Absolve Me) As expected, Bob Dylan’s Tempest contained flashes of keen political insight. Like most of Dylan’s work though, the stories are as readily applicable to the civil war as any current social issue. Perhaps this relative vacuum of political thought is a reflection of our generation’s apathy toward the process in general. My hope is that this post will be met with a small legion of disgruntled readers, armed with a load of examples disproving my assertion.
One songwriter working in direct contradiction to my theory is Bear Hands’ Dylan Rau. The band released its EP Songs From Utopia, Vol. 1 to little fanfare on July 4. In just three tracks Rau addresses the cultural implications of a rising East, the promise of a burgeoning Africa and the injustice of our inaction regarding a still battered New Orleans. The songs were accompanied by a not-so-subtle video that features mundane shots of Rau gobbling munchies while surfing his Macbook and absentmindedly watching Top Gun, loading the tank of his van with gas and an unidentifiable urban landscape drenched in rain water.
The message is presented rather plainly. While we’re busy loading up on fuel and Top Gun reruns in our “Utopia,” real shit is hitting the fan for countless others across the globe. The insulation of our relative contentment has rendered us unable or unwilling to pay attention. These are not necessarily novel ideas, but ones that nevertheless prove worthy of consideration.
Rau is a quick cat. He met bandmate Ted Feldman while the two were undergrads at Wesleyan University. They promptly landed a touring gig alongside fellow Wesleyan undergrads MGMT on the back of their buzz-worthy 2007 debut Golden EP. Three years elapsed before the band dropped their full length Burning Bush Supper Club, whose blend of addictive hooks, eclectic rhythms and immaculate synth work remains some of my favorite material of the last few years.
Recently, Bear Hands has hit the road as part of one of the fall’s of more interesting touring acts. I would like to shake hands with the booking agent that decided to pair Bear Hands with GZA, Sweet Valley and Killer Mike. The line-up seems odd on the surface, but I’ve long detected an element of Bear Hands’ sound that is reminiscent of Beastie Boys. I now feel justified in this assertion. Also, Killer Mike’s new LP R.A.P. Music is as politically charged as any material of his career. The group has a handful of remaining tour dates before wrapping things up at Boston’s Paradise Rock Club on October 19. Watch and listen to Songs from Utopia, Vol. 1 below. Download the tracks for free via Bear Hands’ website.
Written by Rob Peoni