Bear Hands are a textbook example of contrasting personalities uniting to craft something more than the sum of their parts. Vocalist/guitarist Dylan Rau, the Brooklyn-based quartet’s self-confessed musical Luddite (“I can’t read music, but that’s ok because I’m more of an ideas man,”) peppers his supersonic chatter with an infectious collection of witticisms. By contrast his songwriting partner, guitarist Ted Feldman, grew up playing the cello and carefully selects his answers, admitting to being “a bit of a control freak.”

Together, these contradictory characters have combined their strengths to deliver their sophomore album Distraction – a collection in which their love of pop hooks is filtered cohesively through an eclectic collection of genre elements ranging from psychedelic to punk. “Giants” is perhaps the track that best encapsulates everything that makes Bear Hands special, as it flows from a manic verse full of hollered stream-of-consciousness lyrics into an infectious chorus, in which the universal emotion of “I’m loving you more” is set to a cascading riff.

Rau and Feldman first met as film students at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, an institution that has become well known for turning out a steady stream of talented musicians due to its focus on the arts. They became fast friends, bonding over a pot brownie and a shared taste in music. However, as Feldman was already in another band at the time, it would be several months before the two would begin to collaborate musically.

After going through an unpleasant breakup, Dylan discovered that his ex-girlfriend had taken up with one of Ted’s bandmates. When he found out that the band had also been offered a record deal, Dylan decided that they would not ride off into the sunset with both his ex-girlfriend and the guitarist he wanted to join forces with. “I said, ‘this isn’t how I’m going to go down.’ I confronted Ted and said, ‘Alright, that’s it – we’re starting a band!’” Once Ted had been convinced to abandon his previous band and form a new one with Dylan, it was time to complete the lineup.

Rau quickly identified the ideal rhythm section for his new band: bassist Val Loper and drummer TJ Orscher of Glastonbury, CT’s In Pieces. “TJ was definitely one of the best drummers in the area,” explains Rau. “I remember Val playing a show at my school, and him spinning around really, really fast and getting his bass stuck in the ground, and then he tripped over it and knocked over a PA speaker. It was super boss.”

Knowing that he’d need to recruit them as a team, Rau used some mini-Machiavellian tricks to convince each member that the other was already interested. Once they’d come around to the idea, the first session together displayed an almost telepathic connection. As Feldman remembers: “Everyone was pretty surprised at how easily it came together. We put four songs together in the first two rehearsals. In retrospect, it was our honeymoon period."

After Rau’s master plan came together (“You’ve got to poach people from other bands – you scout them and pick people off like weak antelope”), Bear Hands signed to indie label Cantora Records. Bear Hands’ debut album Burning Bush Supper Club was released in 2010, but their progress faltered due to legal complications and daily distractions. This, combined with some inspiration from Jonathan Lethem’s novel Chronic City, led to the band naming their new album Distraction. “It’s about losing touch with reality,” states Rau. “Many things distract us: doing drugs; drinking; reality television; good food; the Internet.”

Frustrated by this protracted hiatus, Bear Hands decided to take the initiative and fund the making of Distraction themselves. Working on a tight budget meant that Feldman, already the director of the band’s videos, would also take the role of producer, with engineering assistance courtesy of their friends Yale Yng-Wong and Jake Aron. To record the drums and the basic tracks, they headed to Feldman’s parents’ house, which was transformed into a makeshift studio for a week. “Luckily my parents weren't there because they probably would’ve freaked out. It looked awesome to me, but maybe not their style,” laughs Feldman. Overdubs and vocals were completed at Yng-Wong’s studio, Doctor Wu’s, in Brooklyn.

Numerous songs on the album are based on real life experiences. “Agora” addresses Rau’s experiences with agoraphobia. “Mixed with a couple of other mental health issues, it was pretty bad,” he admits. “I still have trouble and I have to force myself to leave the house. Socializing and exercise are the two things that I’m trying to work on improving. Sometimes I have little interest in either.”

Another common theme is failing romance. “Thought Wrong” is based upon a time when two of the band members were simultaneously involved in intense break-ups, while “Vile Iowa” reflects Rau’s experiences visiting his ex-girlfriend’s family – conservative, teetotaller Mormons. “I don’t think they really liked me and I don’t think they trusted me,” he sighs. “I have a history of dating girls from the Midwest whose families don’t like me. It’s a habit I need to get over.”

With character, creativity and pure songmanship in abundance, the global appeal of Distraction should ensure that Rau will have a new chance to broaden his horizons way beyond the Midwest. “We’ve always aimed to write pop songs because that’s just what we like, but we also like all sorts of different styles,” affirms Feldman. “There hasn’t been a huge paradigm shift in genres. I think it’s been an evolution of quality.”

Junior Prom

Put down your coffee, cronut, or knife. Go onto YouTube and watch Junior Prom's cover of Hall & Oates' "I Can't Go for That." Trust me.

It's merely a fraction of what's unique about the Brooklyn-based duo of Mark Solomich and Erik Ratensperger, but it introduces everything that makes the Elektra Records duo great. There's the sky-scraping vocal range, playful humor, and the crisp musical interplay.

The songs on their self-titled debut (EP) bring that same sense of joy and levitation. They're whip-smart pop that you can dance to. If you like Phoenix, Cut Copy, or even New Order, odds are Junior Prom will be one of your new favorite bands. Regardless, their sound defies verbs, adjectives, and arbitrary genre divides. It needs to be heard.

"It's about striking the balance between writing a great pop song that everyone can sing along to, but finding an artful angle that makes it unpredictable," says Ratensperger.

"We want to make music that appeals to all different types of people but don't want to be cookie-cutter. It's boring to write lyrics that everyone else has written," adds Solomich.

After all, they recorded and scrapped an entire album before releasing a single song. In an age where groups attempt to discover their sound as they progress, it highlights an unusual sonic maturity—or at least a preternaturally locked-in musical connection.

Bonding over everyone from The Clash, to Earth Wind and Fire, to Bruno Mars, Ratensperger and Solomich navigate the terrain between indie rock, punk, and dance-pop.

"I usually tell people it's like punk soul dub dance music," Solomich says. "At least, that's how we hear it."

The goal is something fresh but always fun. Where you expect them to go right, they dart left. The arrangements always twist at a slightly different angle. But everyone is invited to the party. Pop music isn't necessarily Britney Spears or Katy Perry. Pop is universal. Junior Prom is pop, but they're also much more.

The pair don't take themselves all that seriously—only the music. Their bonafides are legitimate, shored up over innumerable short-lived punk bands and indie rock outfits during their teen years and early 20s. Randomly enough, Solomich caught a show from Ratensperger's first band when they played a Pittsburgh basement show.

But when Junior Prom came together, part of their mission was to break away from the screw-face pretensions that dog many contemporary scenes. It's body music first, but there's a restless intelligence that pierces through when you stop moving. The lyrics riff on everything from economic inequality to comic tales of violent ex-girlfriends. Junior Prom is the sort of band that makes your realize it's always summer in some hemisphere.

"It's really about making music that hopefully encourages people to engage, whether they throw down on the dance floor, or roll down their windows, blast our music and sing along," Ratensperger says. "No matter what song you put on, we want people to feel something."

Total Slacker

Total Slacker has a thing for Olive Garden. It's not just a passing interest or something, next time you talk to Tucker Rountree, their towheaded, lanky frontman, ask him about never-ending pasta bowls and Zuppa Toscana and unlimited breadsticks. He'll tell you about his ongoing attempt to throw a rock 'n' roll show at a Queens Olive Garden, which culminated in a series of phonecalls made to corporate centers, demanding answers to questions like: Do you understand the sociological effect that Olive Garden has had on Western culture since the 80s? What are the conceptual underpinnings behind breadsticks?

Beyond casual American dining, Total Slacker has a thing for the 90s. But rest assured, their new record Slip Away, which comes out 02.11.14 on Black Bell Records, isn't the sort of hack revivalism that'll make you want to burn your copy of Bleach. For the album, Total Slacker dug deep into the crates, and came up with something that sounds like Hum and Skywave a bunch of other bands that'll draw blank stares from nu-gaze numbnuts. Most importantly, they retain their original ethos—to blur the lines between the genuine and the satirical, the earnest and the sarcastic... the shrimp and the scampi.

The band was incubated in New York City, after Tucker met bassist Emily Oppenheimer at a local Laundromat. The pair considered being in a band as an end goal in itself, and began their career without much direction or professionalism. The group released their lo-fi debut, Thrashin', on Marshall Teller Records in 2011, earning a reputation as a vicious live act by playing more than 350 shows—which often feature flaming guitars, smoke machines, and smashed instruments—in under three years. In the wake of the album's local success, the band was struck with tragedy following the death of their drummer, Terence Connor, who was struck by a hit-and-run in early October of 2012. They went into the studio within two months, laying down tracks that dealt with that confusion, transposing vague childhood angst into tangible, real-world issues.

Throughout the album's 11 tracks, the quartet (rounded out by guitarist David Anthony Tassy and drummer Zoë Brecher) makes a potentially futile stab at a life lived in harmony with gargantuan multinational corporations. But don't worry - recorded with care by Daniel Schlett (DIIV, the Men) at Strange Weather Studios in Brooklyn, Slip Away also features songs centered around the Kennedy assassination, ThighMasters, and fighting your babysitter's boyfriend.


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