Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Record review: The Island of Misfit Toys - 'Bear Hair'

By Sasha Geffen

I remember when I bought my first Bright Eyes record. I was 13, it was Letting Off the Happiness, and I felt I was coming out of my local record shop with a huge secret, with dangerous material. I hadn't listened to very much music at the time. My taste centered on the classic rock from my childhood and whatever was on the radio. I was only just starting to get into Nirvana. But then I started reading about one Bright Eyes on a blog I followed, ended up "sampling" some tracks with Kazaa, and within a month had bought their whole discography. I'd never heard anything that raw before. Oberst's early work still makes me almost uncomfortable with its honesty at times. I kept it like a secret. It was my first musical obsession outside the mainstream, and it shaped my teenage identity as music tends to do.

I can hear plenty of that same rawness in the debut LP from The Island of Misfit Toys. The musical project of Anthony Sanders and a barrelful of his friends produces indie pop that doesn't shy away from getting screamy. Thankfully, Sanders doesn't take himself quite as seriously as Oberst did in his adolescence. The desperate nerd edge throughout Bear Hair supports itself with a healthy sense of humor, an engaging playfulness. If you're going to be sad it's useful to learn to laugh at yourself. Anthony Sanders knows this well.

Sanders draws from more than just the Conor Oberst school of expression. On "Beginnings of a Beard," Sufjan-esque flourishes flit in and out--after all, this isn't the product of a boy in a basement on a four-track, but a fully peopled ensemble. A little Sage Francis idolatry appears, perhaps, on "Work," a fun little rap jam that pops up halfway through the album. Misfit Toys end up sounding predominantly Cloud Cultish in their frankness, imagination and diversity of sound.

Bear Hair is certainly an imaginative record, and one for us nerds. When Sanders dropped a Doctor Who reference in "Bear Hair 2" I almost lost it--how often do you get to hear a song about one of your favorite episodes of one of the best sci-fi TV shows? It felt like an in-joke slipped in just for the rest of us Who nerds. But even those who opt out of enjoying the good Doctor (for shame!) ought to appreciate Bear Hair's aggressive quirk. The way Sanders builds metaphor out of feelings is mighty endearing. The name of the record, for example, arises from Sanders's habit of telling his friends that he'd got a bear in his head whenever he was in a mood. One of those friends turned the phrase into "combing out bear hair" to describe Sanders's process of wrangling moods into songs. The album, therefore, is a collection of the sheddings of Sanders's brain-bears. That sort of childlike associative power is the essence of Bear Hair. It's a record about how to deal with it when we can't deal with it, when the bears in our head just get too big and too angry. Sometimes all we can do is comb them and hope they calm down.

The Island of Misfit Toys take that teenage impulse to pour all our rage into a four-track in the basement, then inflate it to a full-band sound. Bear Hair is raw, but it's also confident, occasionally self-amused, and delightfully successful in what it aims to achieve--a world filled with equal parts feeling and playfulness.

Bear Hair is now out via Tandem Shop Records.

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