On their self-titled debut album, Golden Bear has assembled an impressive group of Austin luminaries to help out, including Pink Nasty, Voxtrot’s Jared Van Fleet, The Black Angels’ Kyle Hunt, and Jason Morales of Tia Carrera. Yet even with as many as 14 musicians contributing on some tracks, the result is an impressively coherent burst of Brit-pop inspired tunes with flourishes of horns, synths and even a trashcan.
From the catchy anthematic opener “A Reason to Be Proud,” Golden Bear is addictive and inviting. Their guitar-driven spree of irresistible sound is as inclusive as it is ambitious, and one can’t help getting wrapped up in their persistently hopeful lyrics. Lines like “Between ‘the saddest songs’ and ‘darkest of days’ / When bells don’t dare to make a sound / And you found yourself inside an endless malaise / There’s still a reason to proud,” could easily have come off as cheesy and self-indulgent (”The Saddest Songs” and “Darkest of Days” are two tracks on the album), but they are made convincing by the sheer energy of the group and Chris Gregory’s smooth delivery.
The “collective” feel of songs is reinforced by the chorus of voices that often explode forth along with the horns, and Golden Bear may be our best answer yet to the Canadian collectives that have dominated the indie scene in the past few years. “Ten Thousand Orchestras” and “Victory is Ours” have the same feel as Stars’ best moments, but with a less jaded heart. There are also swings into more twee-ish pep like “Golden Bear Revival Stomp” and country-tinged romps such as “The Saddest Days,” which features Pink Nasty on vocals and Lloyd Maines with some impressive pedal steel. But these songs manage to expand the breadth of the album’s sound rather than diffuse it, partly because everyone contributing seems to have the same vision for the songs, but more because of Erik Wofford’s excellent production on them and perfect piecing of all the disparate elements together.
The underlying sound on the album, however, is still a sweeping early-90’s Brit-pop ala The Boo Radleys. This feel is largely due to Gregory’s accented and often restrained vocals. His singing on “Wonderful” and “Lady Soul” would fit in well with the hazy sound of the Stone Roses or even early Primal Scream, though with a more pop than psychedelic bent. Golden Bear is what The Trembling Blue Stars might produce if they were less endued with Manchester melancholy and more with California dreaming. But taken as whole, Golden Bear has produced one of the best Austin debuts in a while.