Bear Left : you, me, we... [Bear Left, 2002]
by Sean Michaels (courtesy of www.tangmonkey.com)

Two words? Charm songs.

Bear Left's long-awaited album is filled with some of the best acoustic pop this side of Gordon: it is at once entertaining, sonically diverse, and thoroughly, inspiringly, appealing.

The Montreal trio has been kicking around the city's bar and coffee-house scene for years now, and although they had an ancient demo album under their belts, this is their true debut, and it is light-years ahead of their first poorly-produced disc. Howie Kislowicz's singing massages the quirky, folky melodies, delivering songs that match catchiness with intelligent, funny lyrics. The core sound of the band is made up of Kislowicz's guitar/vocals, Shai Korman's djembes, and Matthew Wiviott's bass, but the group makes careful use of alternate instrumentation - from jew's harp to cello to sitar. These instruments enrich You, me, we... to no end, adding subtleties that appear over repeated listens.

The album has several stand-outs, beginning with the strum-pounding piano on opener "Ambiguous Girl". The delicate, tongue-in-cheek "U-mi-oui" solidifies the Bear Left aesthetic, and Kislowicz's vocal delivery is in fine form. Because of the song's fairly quiet feel, it is also notable because Korman's percussion work is truly audible, whereas on much of the rest of the album, the audio levels on his performance are tragically low.

"Sightings" is a lovely, Saturday-afternoon ditty: sunny and good-natured. "The Waltz ('Round the Back)" recalls the Barenaked Ladies' "The Flag" - not in a derivative way, but rather in the fashion that Bear Left communicates sadness and sincerity without cheese or precociousness. Following Nick Drake-style fingerplucking, we hear, quietly, "I was getting kinda' worried I might start writing love songs / I guess I don't gotta' be too scared about that". The words are arresting, and the track's appeal is further deepened by the addition of swooping double-bass and cello.

The disc isn't perfect. Besides the percussion levels, I find "Desert Cowboy"'s melody and delivery uninteresting, and the live version of "Iguana" reminds the listener of the energy of Bear Left's concert performances - to the detriment of the slightly lacklustre "Lost and Found", or the mechanical delivery of "Neil Diamond" (which is an otherwise hilatious song).

Despite these flaws however, You, me, we... is a resounding success, and it is a terrific showcase for Bear Left's fun-loving, 'funky folk': something the world hasn't had enough of since the pop/rock departures of the Barenaked Ladies, Moxy Früvous and, yes, Bob Dylan. Recommended. (You can purchase this album at any Bear Left show, or by contacting the band directly.)