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Solar Bears - She Was Coloured In

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Artist: Solar Bears

Album: She Was Coloured In

Label: Planet Mu

Review date: Jan. 10, 2011

Solar Bears is the Irish duo of John Kowalski and Rian Trench. It’s a silly name — a pun that sounds more like a campy Coil track than a reference to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which is what the two say it’s supposed to be. In interviews, the band drops references to music in film, discussing the influence of soundtrack legends Ennio Morricone and John Carpenter and Alain Goraguer’s odd sci-fi funk score for Fantastic Planet. This is the kind of movie music that record collectors love. But the music on this album, Kowalski and Trench’s debut, has little of the synth pomp of Tangerine Dream or Morricone’s disruptive sounds. Instead of music for an imaginary film, She Was Coloured In is an expertly arranged gloss on pastoral machine music. It sounds, in other words, like a more laid-back Black Moth Super Rainbow: a breezy mix of public-television synths, lilting woodwind and guitar bridges, propulsive hip hop-influenced beats, and a vocoder. It’s probably a little too involving to work as actual soundtrack music. This is home-listening electronica with more in common with Boards of Canada than the albums mentioned above — it’s light and pretty where film music would be solemn and grotesque when necessary. With its astrological optimism, Solar Bears is a pretty indicative name after all.

The gap between what the band talks about and what they actually sound like is what makes this album, to indulge a rock-writerly cliché, as difficult to criticize as it is to love. The reasons for this aren’t as straightforward as, for example, disappointment that this album doesn’t sound like the soundtrack to Michael Mann’s The Keep. It’s simpler than that — the album fails to connect as a whole because it’s not doing anything unique enough to make a lasting impression. The movies mentioned above are retro signifiers that put Solar Bears’ music in a vague, communal context where listeners can sort of discern their own memories and associations. But if you strip away the veneer of subjective associations turned into content, you aren’t left with a whole lot beyond very competent music.

Kowalski and Trench met at recording college, so everything is arranged and recorded impeccably. Although the music is retro, the sounds are hi-fi. Although none of the tracks here drag or bore, “Twin Stars” is the only track with enough identity to be captivating: its mysterious and unresolved tone draws on the past, but sounds actively engaged with what’s possible -- in-studio and conceptually -- now. The album’s title track is an example of the opposite: it’s impossible to criticize on technical or aesthetic grounds, but it feels like it’s tracing familiar ideas without the benefit of a perspective or a personality to motivate it.

Solar Bears touch on a certain trend in electronic music toward memory as a subject. With a shuddering mellotron line and coarse guitar picking, ”Cub” is a Ghost Box-savvy retelling of Wicker Man music. Although She Was Coloured In explores too many styles to fit within the theoretical boundaries of what critics call hauntology or hypnagogic pop, it wouldn’t exist without these ideas and there might be something to be said about what it means for Irish musicians to be exploring the sound-world of the BBC’s incidental music. When the album ends, however, the fact remains that we already know how to listen to music like this. Solar Bears’ debut is a totally pleasant listen that ultimately fits too comfortably within this established musical space to require much consideration.

By Brandon Bussolini

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