The rock band Bear Hands may be heralded as part of the creative independent-music scene in Brooklyn, but when the time came to make their sophomore album, Distraction, they left the metropolis for a while.
"A lot of this album was done at my parents' house, outside the city, just to get away from the whole world of New York City," says Ted Feldman, guitarist and, with singer Dylan Rau, co-songwriter for the band. Feldman, also the director of Bear Hands' videos, became the album's de facto producer.
The band turned Feldman's parents' home in upstate New York into a makeshift studio for a week; luckily for the band, his folks were away at the time. After recording the drums and basic tracks, the band returned to Brooklyn to do vocals and overdubs at engineer Yale Yng-Wong's studio.
Recording away from Brooklyn gave the members of Bear Hands a respite from the distractions of the big city. Thus the album's title, referring to anything capable of diverting attention from an intended goal. In a recent press release, Rau said, "It's about losing touch with reality. Many things distract us: doing drugs, drinking, reality television, good food, the Internet."
To which Feldman adds, "I would like to think (the title Distraction) works in whichever way the listener is going to interpret it. I like that it is open-ended that way. But, yes, distractions are things that get in the way of what you want to do, and we had a few of those along the way."
Bear Hands plays Monday, April 21, at the Rialto Theatre, opening a show that also includes Cage the Elephant and J Roddy Walston and the Business. Bear Hands had been scheduled to play at Plush that night but ended up joining the Rialto bill.
The distractions getting in the way of making Distraction included practical delays that caused a four-year lag between the group's 2010 debut, Burning Bush Supper Club, and the release of the new album this year.
"We never took a conscious hiatus," Feldman says. "And we didn't have to take a break from each other. We like each other's company. We were just on the road for a couple of years and we were trying to slowly build our career as a band. We just didn't make any records for a couple of years. It comes down to the fact that there was a time when we didn't have the funds, or the songs, to make a new record, so we had to wait until we had both."
The results were worth the wait.
The songs on Distraction combine pop melodies, bristling guitar rock and shimmering meditative textures, punky attitude, anything-goes song structure, the occasional psychedelic collage and a funkiness that proves the members of Bear Hands don't ignore EDM and hip-hop.
"We write pop songs to be interesting in different ways, and in ways that we hope are interesting to us," Feldman says. "We always like to try to create songs that are challenging to us as artists and, I hope, challenging to the listener.
"We have really had vast tastes across the board between us in terms about how the different styles seep in. We never really set out to make alternative rock music. It's just something that comes through as a combination of what we are all into."
Ah, that term "alternative." Feldman doesn't care for it.
But Bear Hands' music is alternative in that it represents a healthy alternative to the mainstream pabulum you hear every day.
"If you put it that way, it makes sense. But the way they try to make it a genre, the same way 'indie' is a genre rather than a descriptive word about the business relations of a band, all that is simply trying to shoehorn musicians into another formula," Feldman says.
Vocalist Rau avoids formula in his lyrics, as well. He may sing about familiar topics, such as love and heartache, but he always phrases familiar emotions in unique ways. He can be disarmingly honest, such as on "Agora," about his agoraphobia; "Vile Iowa," an exploration of ugly Americans; and the masterly pop song "Bad Friend," in which he admits he still loves a pal he doesn't respect.
Feldman appreciates his songwriting partner's frankness.
"Some of the songs are masked versions of the truth, or the lyrics are ambiguous. But I agree that (Dylan) is strongest in his most honest, revealing moments. That's when he'll sing something that makes you get that shiver up your leg. It's those moments in which maybe he's saying something that a lot of us have thought but it never really gets said."