When I spoke to Bear In Heaven’s Jon Philpot back in April before the release of his group’s latest record, the swirling, churning space-disco monolith I Love You, It’s Cool, he mentioned that the band hoped its new songs would inspire some movement on the dance floor, but he was still hesitant about labeling the album a dance record. “It’s not like, Rusko or anything,” he said. “But we wanted to edge more in that direction with what we do. I’m glad it was at least noticed. It would be crappy if we tried to make a dance record and no one noticed.” At times the crowd at the band’s Tuesday night Bowery Ballroom concert showed a similar hesitancy, not quite sure if they should be staring in slack-jawed, stoned awe at the band’s warped art-psych mutations or wiggling along to the squigglier side of the group’s thunderous beats. It was a tough choice: nod along or join the party?
Before being faced with the decision to bust a move or bust a slow head-nod, the crowd confronted two openers who together served as an appropriate primer for Bear In Heaven’s distinct dance-vibe/dream-rock ying-yang: Doldrums brought the sweaty beats and the sleeveless T-shirts, while Blouse brought the glacial goth Cure guitar tones and the big hairstyles. Composed of three polite Canadian gentlemen from Montreal, but mostly the project of electronic artist Airick Woodhead, the group builds constantly collapsing electro-temples out of bleating synths, drum pads, found footage, live drumming and airy, post-Animal Collective vocals that toe the line between pure joy and melancholic desperation. Live, the interplay between the drummer and the programmed beats proved to be the most arresting aspect of the show. The band’s set grew more intense as it progressed, the beats getting swampier, rumbling and skittering instead of simply skipping and sputtering. With his arm bracelet and his curly tuft of hair, Woodhead is a dynamic performer, thrusting his hips towards his gear like a little boy trying to do inappropriate things to his Game Boy.
The ’80s nostalgia continued, though this time it was a little less “head-band, ripped jeans” ’80s, a little more “being a sad teenager and writing in a diary” ’80s. Hailing from Portland, Blouse are not a Reagan-era relic, though they do a really good impression of one. Singer and guitarist Charlie Hilton brings an other-worldly touch to the group’s poignant smear-pop, her tangled mass of hair serving as the centerpiece to the group’s tight pastiche-rock. Conjuring memories of the Cocteau Twins and the Smiths, the band nailed the aching romanticism of their forebears through a combination of delicate guitars, big bass lines, and soft keyboards. Playing such nostalgic music can be a difficult balancing act between mining the past and acknowledging the present, but Blouse managed to keep the crowd under its spell, drawing people into its cotton candy time machine.
Bear In Heaven took the stage past 11, ready to dance. While I Love You, It’s Cool takes a maximalist approach to songwriting, stacking synth textures and guitar parts till they threaten to topple over into a mess of burping sounds, the band’s live set was a masterclass in concision and restraint. That’s not to say there weren’t big, dramatic gestures to be made—Philpot is fond of opening his arms wide, like he’s trying to embrace the audience in a record-breaking bear hug, and drummer Joe Stickney occasionally flirts with Phil Collins style showmanship—but on the whole the new material sounded lean and focused. Despite the group’s penchant for tribal flourishes and krautrock pulses, the most effective moments in the set came when songs were trimmed of their fat down to the bare essentials. While older tracks, like “Lovesick Teenagers,” brought out the loudest cheers and the most vigorous toe-tapping, the newer material, like the soaring battle-cry “Sinful Nature,” showed off the band’s ability to sell a complex and layered song with sharp playing and laser-like precision.
Oh, did I mention there were lasers? Yeah, there were lasers. A lot of lasers. And strobe lights. And smoke. And these bizarre LED contraptions that appeared to be either sprouting out of the ground like blinking blades of grass, or floating in the air as the result of some space-rock voodoo. The lights were a lot of fun, creating a futuristic moonscape for Philpot to dance around in, his arms swinging wildly. Philpot is a fascinating singer to watch because he often looks as though he’s chewing gum or tobacco, his mouth churning in wide circular motions as he gasps out his heartfelt laments and vaguely mystical requests.
Mostly, he wanted us to dance. The crowd mostly complied, though one guy standing near me seemed to annoy the shit out of everyone around him with his constant arm waving and stumbling. There’s a difference between having a good time and being the guy who insists that everyone around you needs to be having an equally good time. Philpot was freed from such space restraints and social rules as he roamed the stage, dancing the night away as the lights swirled around him. I loved it. It was cool.