I have never “sat on” an album so long. What I mean is that I just couldn’t find the words for what this remarkable band Bears of Legend and this album Good morning, Motherland have come to mean to me. It is an adventure and a salvo. It is a journey to a place that I seemingly only go with this album. I have had moments with different bands that were intimate, admittedly, but what happens when I listen to this is really transformative. I can’t even understand the words in a few of the songs, but the emotions are so evocative that my heart yearns to hear it again.
Really, I’m talking about an album. Listen. Delight. Be changed.
The most superficial comparison I could come up with upon first listening to these talented musicians was my experience last year with St. Paul de Vence. While they are both incredible, that comparison probably does them both a disservice. Yes, they are folk albums with beautiful lyrics, harmonies, and a few songs in French.
In a world that some have lamented as the “end of the album” this is an ALBUM. Start to finish there’s not a track to skip. Not only that, a minion will fly out of your listening device and slap you if you skip a track. Each song feeds into the next with a gorgeous purposefulness. To skip is to defeat the point of the album entire. Seriously, go listen to some top 40 if you can’t summon the time to listen to a 16 song masterpiece. The art is lost on you if you’re THAT busy.
The album begins with a Fleet Foxes sound of mindblowing tight harmonies. The sound satisfaction never dies down. When the full and sound joins into the acapella chorus for the second track, “Wait,” the listener immediately gets the sense that there’s something significant going on here. This isn’t just a simple folk album. “Tell me, what did you see when you found me lost in the deep?” This lyric introduces a sense of powerful connection between the characters in the song. Then, “don’t it make your heart beating loud?” captures the excitement of young love. The song is good enough to stand alone, but is clearly connected to something greater.
Just as an aside, the lyrics on the album often do not rhyme. They are not written explicitly as lyrics, but rather as stand alone prose in their own right. That makes for an intriguing album concept. In that sense, it’s not a “sing a long” kind of album, but rather a sit-with-your-jaw-open kind of album. I react to this album the same way I did when I first heard “Blue Ridge Mountains” by Fleet Foxes. It’s that kind of band and album.
“The Mornings I’ve Let You Down” is a beautiful song, also. It really highlights a mandolin-over-cello sound that is quite wonderful. The syncopated beat creates a dance sound, but the lyric content is far from the triteness of typical dance fare. Instead, this song is about a flawed past and a series of mistakes. The underlying message is to forget that sordid past, focusing instead on the moment at hand. In that sense, let’s dance. It’s a delight, truly.
The European-influenced “Let Me Be” reminds me of St. Paul de Vence’s remarkable album last year. The accordion, complimented by a full band and stunning lead vocals, come together for one of the best tracks on the album. It’s difficult to quote specific lines as indicative of the song. It’s really a must-listen track. When, in mid song, the sound is juxtaposed from a sweet solo to a full choral sound, the listener is floored and flooded with joy. Although, again, it’s hard to sing with the band, listeners can’t help but smile and dance. The final message in the song is that of hope and, similar to the last song, about moving on through rocky patches in a relationship.
Now before I get too far into this album, let me just say there are no “skip tracks” in listening to this album, but I have to skip a few in writing about it. The French “La Riviere” and equally stunning if completely different “No Moccasins” both bring a sense of variety and complexity. From layered vocals to transcendent piano background, “No Moccasins” in particular paints a picture of the American West that is frankly stunning. The lyrics and even the sound portrays an untamed West of Native culture, a theme that is revisited throughout the album.
“Let your heart be the forest guide” is the opening power lyric of “Forest Guide.” This song has a sound that will be familiar to fans of The Lumineers and other like-minded pop folk acts. That’s one of the incredible things about this album is its versatility. It seems like one of those albums that can just do anything. Like this group of musicians could cover just about anything from 19th century parlor music to the latest top 40 and seemingly everything in between. The lead vocals on this song have certain adolescent grit to them that makes the song really have staying power.
My favorite song on the album, though, is “Cantilena Star.” It’s a heart-melting track that begins with the Native American affect of drums and whistle, but introduces a truly gorgeous vocal and choral part that is distinctly 21st century. The evident juxtaposition makes the track work in so many ways. The lyrical focus on a sense of the unknown is breathtaking. Just read, “I woke you up in silence somewhere in the rain. Rocking in the balance, washed away the pain. Lost among the mornings I’ve been chasing after me. The truth is that it lingers in the sea.” It continues in similar storytelling fashion. Later in the song when the powerful piano fills the sound I am blown away on every listen. This part is why I say this song is so definitely 21st century. There are a mixture of old and new meeting in the sonic construct here; it is the middle ground where the past and the present meet in a gorgeous musical blend. This is the kind of song that cannot be replicated. It’s a contender for song of the year for me and deserves to be known at the highest levels of musical awards.
The resonate “My friend, my friend” at the beginning of “Reclaim my place” really sets the tone for the song. It’s got this gorgeous ambient distance between the strings and the melodic vocal of the lead singer. The contrast works beautifully with the harmonies, both vocal and string, that fill the rest of the track. Relaxing, dreamlike, and contemplative… this is the kind of track that would be the best on a number of other albums. But here, it’s just standard fare. Amazing.
There are a variety of reasons that a song can be entertaining, but we don’t often talk about meter. We might say a song has a good “beat” but the track, “More” has a 6/8 time signature backed with some Old World accordion and clapping that transports listeners to another time and place. Yet, somehow, there’s a distinctly contemporary feel to the overall vibe. I wish I had words for how they’ve done it, but I assure you it is well done. Part Fiddler on the Roof and part Sergeant Pepper’s, it’s a delightfully whimsical song from start to finish.
“In the Streets” and “Cold like the heart of men” are both soft, sweet, and pack a powerful social message. While “In the Streets” is about homeless children, “Cold…” is a bit less clear about its purpose. I’ll take a stab and say that it has to do, broadly, with urban poverty. That said, it seems to be a song with multiple, layered meanings. In both cases, though, the deep and sensitive lyrics are accented by a fulfilling and comforting overall sound.
The album ends with the introspective and broadly “sacrificial” song “Stand up.” It brings this remarkable album to a beautiful end. What is most impressive about this album is not the individual songs as stand alone works of art. Rather, this is an album that must be taken together. Having listened to it repeatedly, I constantly find myself pulling out subtleties in both lyrics as well as music. The creators of this art have a well-developed sense of deeper meaning in life. Throughout the album, listeners will notice that the lyrics don’t have a happy, clappy rhyme to them. Instead, they are prosaic not poetic. That seemingly small difference is part of what characterizes the work of Bears of Legend. This album was released at the very end of 2012, but I’m going to consider it for best albums of 2013. This is a must-listen for fans of St. Paul de Vence and most anyone who enjoys the emerging folk movement. Enjoy, friends, for albums like this do not come along very often.