Strip a song down to its bare essentials - usually a guitar and vocal - and you’ll find out pretty quickly whether it’s any good or not. Layers of studio sheen and sonic smoke and mirrors can only take a bad song so far. So thank Lee Miles for cutting out the B.S. and keeping his newest batch of songs crisp, largely unadorned and, um, good.
Miles possesses a commanding set of vocal cords; not surprisingly, his voice is front and center throughout Bear. Strong vocalists like Grant Lee Phillips (Grant Lee Buffalo) and Son Volt’s Jay Farrar come to mind. The sparse musical settings evoke lonesome landscapes, populated mostly by dusky acoustic guitars and restrained drums.
Several additional instruments add to the atmosphere of the disc, however. A majestic and haunting violin threads its way through the opening cut, “Rich Man’s War,” while harmonica, mandolin and banjo are also showcased throughout the album by a number of guest musicians. These tasty extra ingredients are all tastefully employed, never overpowering the bedrock of Miles’ understated arrangements. The songwriting here is solid and consistent.
“Heavy Hearted Woman” features a sprightly fingerpicked guitar, recalling vintage Dylan and backcountry folk, while a church organ anchors the slow buildup of “My Protector My Punisher.”
A reverb-drenched, bluesy electric guitar flits atop the circular sea chantey rhythm of “Cold Wind Blowin’.” The song is heavy with ambivalence, both social and religious, questioning “prophets and seers” and “kings and criminals” alike.
Bear was co-produced by Miles and Rich Lysaght at the Loft in Hicksville, Ohio. The uncluttered production really does these songs justice and is especially effective on tracks like the excellent “Once I Was a Brave One,” where finessed drum work meshes perfectly with high lonesome vocal harmonies and a perfectly placed lead guitar.
Miles’ lyrics are often philosophical and usually straightforward in the Americana vein, though he occasionally shows a knack for telegraphing lyrics rather than pounding the listener over the head with Meaning. “Mamma They Made Me Beg” mentions “television skin” and a “supermarket grin,” literal headscratchers for sure, but they carry emotional weight rather than obvious significance, if you like that kind of stuff. I do.
The record ends much as it begins, with an unvarnished guitar and vocal. “The taste in my mouth has grown sour, more so by the hour,” intones Miles on “Like Machinery.” Throughout the album his visions of beauty are tempered by an inexorable sadness, where black-and-white truths have become muddied and the trusted ones lie or are misled. But far from creating a depressing experience, Miles has fashioned an engaging record, full of grit and authenticity, where the austere gravity of the songs keeps the listener involved.
Bear is available at local record stores and can also be ordered directly from www.leemiles.us. Be sure to check out the informative and frequently hilarious bio while you’re there.
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