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“Entertaining the Possibility that Au Pair’s One Armed Candy Bear is the Best Indie Rock Album of Last Decade”

Oh, well, I forgot, that great Nacho Libre in the corporate America sky said we weren’t supposed to like indie rock anymore last decade. How high did you want me to jump again, sir?

Well, in the event that there are still any independently thinking people left on the planet, I’ve decided to initiate this discourse, with the obvious thought modules extant in mind that The National, Deerhunter, Beach House, The Dodos and Califone were still very vital last decade and we even got a bunch of interesting new acts like Julia Holter, Lower Dens, Japanese Breakfast and HTRK, to name a couple.

The band Au Pair and, what’s as of right now their only release of any kind, 2015’s full-length LP One Armed Candy Bear, is composed of Gary Louris, who claims The Jayhawks as his primary meal ticket, and Django Haskins, who can be found gallivanting in “chamber pop” group Old Ceremony from time to time. Pop Matters labeled Au Pair a “supergroup” with what I thought was hilarious licentiousness — I mean when The Jayhawks are the more famous of the two groups that spawns a purported “supergroup,” you’re using the term pretty liberally. 

Still, One Armed Candy Bear is a folk-rock record that bleeds professionalism and seasoned recording savvy. It reminds me, in fact, in this exact way, of Califone, which as we know was the progeny of Tim Rutilli who also had done time in somewhat of an indie mainstay, Red Red Meat, prior to spearheading of that band. Indeed, although there are only two permanent members of Au Pair, sometimes there’s so much going on in the mix that I can’t even keep track of it all, a discrepancy that indeed also seems to have been part of Califone’s primary objective, on certain records. 

Every sound seems to resonate, though, on One Armed Candy Bear, a record the band produced themselves with help from Brian Haran on engineering and Adam Gonsalves on mixing [1], at a studio called The Pine Box in Durham, North Carolina [2] [3]. The songs themselves range refreshingly from full guitar pop to more rustic, campfire fare, like “Middle Distance” with its bongo basis and poignant tension, and “Make an Entrance,” which features both members on guitar as the only instrumentation and vocals courtesy of just Haskins. 

“Sullivan’s Ghost” is a striking, singular session in rudimentary rock for its conspicuous lack of regular percussion and, in tandem, its undeniable mania of disposition, as if to flaunt how much juvenile fun these middle-aged dudes were having cranking out this music. The acoustic guitar comes in initially to lay down the song’s primary foundation and then this electric guitar stab emerges that, I swear, sounds like a car horn, From there, things only get more off-kilter and indulgent, with the mix sporadically courting the low register with some sparse bass twang and low, bass-drum-sounding boom. At its heart, though, “Sullivan’t Ghost” is a fully formed celebration of rhythm and songwriting, the type of project that seems to dispatch from the center of music itself as a whole, amply exuding the sense that this was a style these guys chose over many other possible recourses. The classic rock allusion is even in full force in the chorus: “Don’t you know I built this city / Before you were born?”

Ultimately, I think what will over time cement One Armed Candy Bear as a classic is the complete absence of other bands that sound like these guys. Some of the techniques, both vocal and guitar, might resemble various comparable fixtures like Ted Leo or The New Pornographers, etc. But these guys seem to defiantly lambast your attempts to name any stringent influences, too, by having the basis of their project repeatedly fall back on completely uncharted territories, like the grating organ sound that bulwarks the second half of “Sullivan’s Ghost” and the theremin-like synth madness caterwauling amidst “One-Eyed Crier.” Rarely to be found is any conventionally sounding guitar solo. 

Through all this, though, One Eyed Candy Bear is still an album with a universal appeal. You don’t have to “meet it halfway,” that is, or be in the mood for anything too avant-garde or grating, if you put it on. The styliistic eclecticism actually bespeaks a certain level of confidence that made me originally, though I did rank it the eighth-best album of 2015, sort of half-cast it off in my mind as glib, or gimmicky. No: Louris and Haskins had just compiled a taut but breezy vial of indie rock so complete and so energetic in its own right that there was a strikingly scant amount of listener assembly required. 

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[1] https://www.discogs.com/Au-Pair-One-Armed-Candy-Bear/release/8009632.

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[2] https://www.allmusic.com/album/one-armed-candy-bear-mw0002881545

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[3] This might apparently be partly explained by Old Ceremony’s original home base being Chapel Hill. The Jayhawks originally hail from Minneapolis and the two musicians met in Chicago at a Big Star tribute show, also according to ALLMUSIC. 

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