Why Is Bear Billowing? by Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez

Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez’s first album, Why Is Bear Billowing? (Carpark Records, 2008), is centered on an acoustic guitar, the singer’s marvelous voice and his poetic lyrics, which are sometimes populated by odd things like wizards, narwhal horns, enamored bakers and postmen, or “a lion who’s quite the minstrel,” all without falling into the trap of being weird for the sake of standing out. I suppose we might qualify this debut album as another contribution to that unfortunately-named group of musicians known as “Freak Folk” (which at least is better than the silly name “Naturalismo,” or what could be the worst one I’ve heard yet, “New Weird America”). But Gonzalez Alvarez is doing something unique, paying attention to how he strums his guitar and writing great, funny, romantic, fantastical, heartfelt and even, at times, visionary lyrics.

Born in Havana, Cuba in 1983, Gonzalez Alvarez grew up in Miami and now lives in Baltimore, where he studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art. I was disappointed when I read Pitchfork’s mediocre review of this album last year, though I suspect they simply tried to understand him within the context of Freak Folk (I really hate using that term, but it’s convenient) and thus failed to notice the subtleties of his songwriting. As far as I can tell, his album has gotten some attention around the Internet, none in magazines, and in a note on his web site a few months ago he wrote about being homeless, broke and without a phone. I imagine this album will take a while to reach its listeners, or maybe it will simply remain on the margins like so many other amazing artifacts, waiting for you to pick up on its pleasures.

On his MySpace page Gonzalez Alvarez lists Syd Barrett as one of his musical influences. When I first saw that I realized what it is about Why Is Bear Billowing? that makes me play it over and over again in my car, at home and in my iPod. Like Barrett’s inimitable solo work, Gonzalez Alvarez creates an incredibly full sound with only his voice and an acoustic guitar. Another thing they have in common is their ability to come up with astonishingly beautiful moments in their lyrics. Take, for instance, the opening verses from “Pinecone Eyes”:

“Boy are you a sight for my pinecone eyes
I’ll rest half my head on your fireproof belly
And if the morning should ever come
And the wind is blown from your sails
Down to the waves then in your gypsy dive
Swim out to the rock, tears are merging with my end
And I will sit for you”

When he writes about love, that sentiment is enhanced by the precision of the images in his lyrics, as in the following fragment from “Little Island”:

“Oh come next morning, our wicker basket
Heavy with pearls that I have collected
In hopes you’ll wear them to our grand wedding
Oh ask the songbirds in to sing the chorus of strings”

Or, this moment from “All With Golden Locks,” where Gonzalez Alvarez sings with an infectious joy in his voice. It’s as though he were amazed by the unexpected avenues that open up sometimes in his songs:

“And our ship it flies the highest
Plucked upwards by six ladies
All with golden locks
All with golden locks
All with golden locks”

Those repeated verses are accompanied by a soft organ that’s beautifully mixed alongside his acoustic guitar strumming, and soon afterward we get what could be a harpsichord solo (I’m not sure because the liner notes to the album are minimal.) So far, there’s only one official video by Gonzalez Alvarez available on YouTube (“The Letter B”). There are some clips of him playing in concert available too, with varying degrees of poor to middling sound quality. In one of these, at a concert in his hometown, the audience is heard talking loudly while he thanks them for showing up and proceeds to sing without seeming to be too concerned about their chatter.

Earlier, I mentioned a visionary quality I find in some of his lyrics. This has to do with his affinity for words and phrases that never settle into single meanings, allowing the listener to roam freely through psychic panoramas that are anchored in dreams as much as in the material world. In “Love for Longer” he presents a triptych of related lyrics that also exist independent of each other. The landscape of the song is mythical but it’s lightened by a quirky sense of humor and by what I interpret as faith in the power of individual and collective creation. I transcribe the song in full below:

“Sometimes I wish I could find the wizard
That cast a spell on my poor mother
In the night while she was asleep
And I know that I have been covered in smoke
Just to fix what was wrong with my body
And those lungs that I had are the same lungs that I keep

If there’s a light out at the top of the mountain
We’ll all have to learn how to climb
If there is something that is buried beneath
We will all have to learn how to dig
And blinded by the glow of the great shining rocks
The children will cover their eyes
We shall all build our homes out of these
To stand through the wind, to love for longer

Somewhere in time, a child is convinced
That his little fingers and the space between them
Are rays from the sun, therefore everyone
To fight off the night, to love for longer”

This is one of those albums you’ll want to hear in the comfort of your own home, or in the car, or somewhere that will allow you to listen to the entire thing in one sitting. I like some of the songs more than others, of course, but the whole record really moves me. Like some of Vetiver’s work, Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez seems to be aiming for an acoustic subtlety that unfolds with repeated listening. He allows his guitar playing to frame and mirror the oblique charms of his lyrics. His voice is sweet and he seems like he doesn’t want to be a rock star (“I hope you don’t think I’m some kind of silly bird, oh no / That moves so slow, oh so slow, oh so slow...”). I love this album and maybe you will, too.

[A version of this review was published in Melted: A Rock N’ Roll Fanzine, Issue 1, May 2009, Durham, NC]


Cheryl said...

Thanks. I will check it out. I love The Madcap Laughs.

Guillermo Parra said...

Hi Cheryl. Me too. I think The Madcap Laughs is a masterpiece, it's such an amazing album.