Bear in Heaven gets its act together
By functioning like a real band, Brooklyn's critical darlings transcend the Pitchfork hype
The title of Bear in Heaven's third proper full-length, I Love You, It's Cool, is a line that singer, keyboard player, and founding member Jon Philpot lifted from a note left to him in the group's practice space by former bandmate and guitarist Sadek Bazarra. Although Bazarra left the group on amicable terms following their sophomore LP, those five words encapsulate everything the Brooklyn-based trio has endured over the last few years.
"It's kind of a banged-around title, but it seemed like the right idea," Philpot says. "We were going through some hard times while we were putting this record together — committing ourselves to being a band and getting a label. They were good things but there was a lot of stress, and it was a cathartic thing that came out of that note that he left for us."
Philpot seems unguarded when talking band dynamics, but he treads wearily when the conversation turns to criticism. The overwhelming praise, and ensuing backlash, that crept over the group's second album, 2009's Beast Rest Forth Mouth (Hometapes), literally changed the game for him.
It all began with a glowing 8.4 review that was handed down from Internet tastemaker Pitchfork, opening the floodgates for a whole lot of attention, which came pouring in from across the country, even overseas. Prior to releasing Beast Rest Forth Mouth, Bear in Heaven existed mainly as a part-time project — something Philpot had been kicking around since 1998 when he still called Atlanta home and moonlit with such under-the-radar acts as Seattle-based drone/noise duo Presocratics and Scott Herren of Prefuse 73's cerebral post-rock outfit Savath & Savalas.
Through it all, Bear in Heaven was something that Philpot tended to in his spare time, sometimes even taking a month or more to meet up with the rest of the band for practice.
But after that fateful Pitchfork review, all eyes were on Bear in Heaven; so much so that Philpot, guitarist Adam Wills, and drummer Joe Stickney were forced to start working like a real band. "It shifted our entire perspective," Philpot recalls. "All of a sudden people knew about Bear in Heaven, and there were a lot more people at our shows, but they weren't necessarily there because they liked us," he continues. "Some came to enjoy the show, some came to decide for themselves if they liked us or not. Others just wanted to be a part of the thing."
As the group hit its stride, playing more shows on the road, the impact of so much acclaim was clear. Not only was it time for a commitment, the band had to write an album that raised the stakes on everything it had achieved with Beast Rest Forth Mouth.
Bear in Heaven first came to fruition with a 2003 EP, titled Tunes Nextdoor to Songs. It was ostensibly a solo effort released by Scott Herren's now defunct Eastern Developments label. Philpot's stark, minimal pop arrangements were fleshed out by contributions from Wills, Stickney, and Bazarra, along with guitarist David Daniell of San Agustin, bassist James Elliott (Ateleia and School of Seven Bells), and drummer Paul Duncan.
Nearly five years went by before the same lineup returned to release Bear in Heaven's first proper full-length, The Red Bloom of the Boom, in 2007. It was a natural shift into drone and pop experimentation, and it was only the first phase of a transition into the psychedelic murk and new wave slur of such songs as "Lovesick Teenagers," "Casual Goodbye," and "You Do You" on Beast Rest Forth Mouth. Philpot's waifish falsetto was also reaching its full, androgynous potential, so much so that it became his defining characteristic.
Praise was in abundance, but there was backlash as well, as many reviews weren't so keen on Philpot's voice or the album's stylistic adaptation of '80s electronic textures. "It was a hot topic of conversation," Philpot says. "That album brought us to pop culture, and there were people who absolutely hated it. But we plowed through it."
I Love You, It's Cool arrived on April 3 as a split release between Hometapes and the Secretly Canadian/Jagjaguwar offshoot label Dead Oceans, placing the group on a roster with the likes of Akron/Family, Bowerbirds, and John Vanderslice. In many ways, the album encapsulates all of the stylistic shifts that have marked Bear in Heaven's journey — Bazarra even came back to design the cover art — culminating in a vibrant sound. The album's first single, "The Reflection of You," along with "Noon Moon" and "Sinful Nature," serves as a stylistic bridge connecting the gap between the gritty melancholy of Beast Rest and the positively glistening pop hues of I Love You, It's Cool.
Other songs, such as "World of Freakout," "Kiss Me Crazy," and "Space Remains," find a stable middle ground where the band's musical instincts of the past collide with evolved songwriting sensibility. I Love You, It's Cool is the first record that Bear in Heaven has pulled off that documents a particular time by fusing a palette of sounds, instruments, and emotions into one cohesive effort. And it resonates on a deeper level than anything the group has done before.
"I think we're in peoples' good graces with this record, maybe more now than ever before," Philpot adds, before biting his tongue. "Now that I've said that and the record is out there now, it will be backlash time again — but it's cool."