Bringing Brit-Pop to Bear

The original Edward The Bear was a stuffed companion to Christopher Robin Milne, and one of his father's primary inspirations in creating Winnie the Pooh. Since then, Ed has served as subject fodder for various other children's books, and one song by The Damned during their forgettable post-Captain Sensible period. Allegations that he provided the impetus for Iron Maiden's ever-evolving malevolent mascot Eddie, however, have been proven groundless.His latest appearance on the cultural tip comes courtesy of a Brit-damaged dream-pop namesake quartet from Gainesville, but guitarist/singer George Papanikos isn't quite up to divulging the connection's particulars.

"That's a bit of a closely guarded secret. We're not ready to come out with it just yet, but when we do, it will be a letdown," he says with a laugh. "It's nothing spectacular, and we can leave it at that."

Papanikos' offbeat charisma helps fuel a similarly skewed sound, one that's unabashedly rooted in the underbelly of English New Romantic, Old Wave and lush-pop styles. Simultaneously grand and subtle, ambitious and lo-fi, Edward The Bear neatly mines the likes of Robyn Hitchcock and Echo & The Bunnymen for inspiration. There's also a bit of arty, Athens-bred collegiate jangle going on — somehow, the band combines both elements without sending the pretense detector too far into the red — but their love for all things swirly, clever, catchy and British dominates ETB's sound.

It wouldn't be a stretch to assume that the foursome's aural character hinges solely upon the passions and persona of Papanikos, an admittedly rabid Anglophile. But the singer maintains that their process is definitely a collaborative one.

"It's usually something that develops in a band setting; it just happens that since I'm the lead vocalist, I get to write most of the words and the vocal melodies," he says. "But it's definitely not a situation where anybody's always getting told what to play."

Papanikos and bassist/vocalist Jeff Halle played together for years before Edward The Bear "began to get serious" in 2000. Guitarist/analog synth player Tom DeMattio, the band's graphics guy, hung out in their circle and stepped in after a previous guitarist's departure, and Papanikos swears he hunted drummer Jonathan Manzano down after driving through an apartment complex one day and hearing him practicing. In Gainesville's notoriously punk-centric original music scene, ETB built their audience one fan at a time, releasing a brace of EPs on hometown imprint Sloth Bear Records and eventually connecting by dint of perseverance — and, in all likelihood, sticking out like a sore thumb.

"It's particularly difficult in Gainesville, but you've got to give it your all," says Papanikos. "Gainesville is really into punk and hardcore, which is all right for what it is, sure, but they're not very accepting of things that differ from the norm.

"That said," he continues, "after a couple of years, you're bound to find a following."

In the coming weeks, Edward The Bear will undertake their first national tour. Sloth Bear has grouped the band's previous releases with some unreleased and Internet-only material on the full-length Simple Songs, due out Oct. 1. But before most folks will have a chance to hear the record, Papanikos and his bandmates hope to make some new converts with a live set that forgoes the standard all-out sweatfest and crowd exhortation in favor of some less overt visual entertainment.

"They're by no means energy spectacles or anything, but we put on a show — people are always entertained," he says. "It's not the obvious things that are going on. You have to know what to look for."

When "Get Away," the first single from L.A. outfit Earshot's debut album, Letting Go, hit the airwaves several months ago, some people thought they were a singularly edgy nu-metal act. Some people thought they were an exceptionally aggressive modern rock act. And some people thought they were Tool.

"Get Away" in general, and vocalist Wil Martin's style in particular, were repeatedly compared to the visionary art-metal band in the press and by DJs and radio callers. While the track is still in heavy rotation, the ado seems to have tapered off a bit, and Martin believes it's because listeners have had some time to pick up Letting Go and hear other facets of the quintet's style.

"I think kids thought we were gonna be another band that tried to rip off some other band completely, with another record where all the songs sounded like (a previous popular act)," he says. "People got the record and had a change of heart about their initial feelings, then saw a show and found it to be a completely different animal."

Letting Go contains a surprising spectrum of heavy styles, from straight-up workhorse rock to aggressive fare characterized by jagged rhythms and subtly ominous guitar atmospherics. "Not Afraid," the follow-up to "Get Away," sounds about as much like Maynard James Keenan and company as does, say, Black Album-era Metallica. It's a much more mainstream-friendly tune, and the difference between the two singles characterizes the disc's span.

Moreover, one thing conspicuously missing from the record is cookie-cutter modern metal's diffuse, open-ended angst. Sure, the members of Earshot (Martin, drummer Dave Moreno, guitarists Mike Callahan and Scott Kohler, and bassist Johnny Sprague) get pissed and vent, but Letting Go evinces an obvious sense of catharsis and closure.

"I personally got really tired of listening to a bunch of bands that were just angry all the time, kind of had that angst about the voice and the lyrics in every single song," says Martin. "People certainly respond to that, but there needs to be an outcome to it all. It needs to get wrapped up."

The vocalist maintains that Earshot's style isn't solely a reaction to what he sees as an encroaching sameness in heavy music, but more the result of disparate influences and experience.

"I grew up listening to everything from B.B. King to Metallica to The Beatles. We're all musicians; we've all been playing a long time. We've worked really hard to be good players, so why not showcase that?" he says. "We want to write songs that are genuine and honest and that people can connect with."

Music critic Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].

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