The 2 Bears - Be Strong - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

The 2 Bears - Be Strong

by Rich Morris Rating:8 Release Date:2012-01-30

You have to wonder if Joe Goddard and Raf 'Daddy' Rundell are starting to wish they'd gone with another name for their house-plus-whatever collaboration. Two lads named after the gay bear phenomenon (if you don't know what that is, you can Google it - but you might what to put SafeSearch on first), dressed up in big fuzzy bear suits for promo shoots, one of whom is known for his day job as the extra nerdy member of electro-pop titans Hot Chip - everything about The 2 Bears says 'novelty act'.

Everything except the music, that is. Last year's 'Bear Hug' single may have been full of loveably silly lyrics - delivered by Raf, his cockney yap pitch-shifted down to a booty-shaking, licentious growl - but its taunt rhythm and clattering beats made it utterly addictive and showed this duo were prepared to put in the work, something they're pleased to boast about elsewhere on their debut album.

There's no doubt Raf and Joe have put the hours in here. Nevertheless, Be Strong is still a little throwaway in places, but it has one killer weapon: its immense likeability. In the quagmire of depressing January, the pounding beats and positive message of 'Work', the laidback electro of 'Warm & Easy', the lovely, unexpected brass fanfare on opener 'The Birds & the Bees' and the redemptive, steel drum-enhanced coda of closer 'Church' are like strong arms pulling you up and out the morass.

The album's clearest novelty moment comes on 'Time in Mind', an electro-country-cockney-boogie which you will either love or hate. I think it's great, Raf's careworn vocal somehow managing to locate a touching sincerity in the midst of the ridiculous. Plus the peddle steel guitar is just gorgeous.

Elsewhere, Be Strong doesn't bash you round the head with E-ed up euphoria (in fact, it even features a sample of Andy Weatherall warning how the drug can ruin your music taste). Instead it seduces you by being smiley, friendly, non-judgemental, warm and funky. You'll want to dance, and you'll even find yourself prepared to overlook such lyrical howlers as "Love is lovely/ and war is ugly" ('Warm & Easy'). Raf Daddy's estuary vowels are crucial here: he's not a singer so much as a mate pattering in your ear, narrating the scene around you, urging you to have fun, always ready with a big, furry hug (OK, I admit it, I've got a crush on him. As he raps: "I never loved a bear but tonight I've been drinking - ha!").

Lending emotional weight to the party vibe is an undercurrent of sadness which runs through tracks such as 'Take a Look Around', a sense that these good times have been a long time coming and might be cruelly fleeting, so we need to grab hold of them and each other right now. There's also the belief in dance music as a force for social good, as a form of gentle justice in a harsh world, which evolved out of the civil rights movement and informed so much classic disco and house.

It's a sentiment which was lost utterly once the superclubs of the 90s locked down the genre, and it's wonderful that The 2 Bears understand how central this notion is to great dance music. Where Hercules & Love Affair's 'Blind' mourned the ephemeral nature of dance utopianism, Raf and Joe simply revive it on tunes like the Gorillaz-esque 'Ghosts & Zombies', content to keep the faith and pass it on.

There's also an unexpected realism at play on Be Strong. 'Get Together' references the raising of the state pension age. The positive messages which litter the lyrics of the song steer clear of boggle-eyed raver claptrap, instead offering doleful homilies such as "Stay close to what's important to you". On 'Heart of the Congos', Raf tells us that music keeps him on the ground, while on the title track he raps: "Some say that music sets you free/ but all my life the music has imprisoned me." The club nation of the 90s won't save us, won't set us free, at least not for long. You have to really know yourself and take care of those around you to survive. It seems significant that Rundell lost his job when the duo formed.

Overall, this album's greatest strength is its humanity, its fragile optimism. The music, meanwhile, is never less than lovely, if sometimes a little unmemorable. But for the sunshiny vibes it will bring into your house on cold, miserable days, Be Strong is to be cherished. It's not just a strong debut - it gives the listener strength as well.

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