Ursa Minor sounds promising enough on paper. A four-piece from NYC, the group contains a Grammy-nominated producer and bassist for Sex Mob (guitarist Tony Scherr), a session musician who’s played for everyone from Björk to Sesame Street (bassist Rob Jost), and a singer who’s lent her voice to the scores of two films by outré artist Elliott Sharp (vocalist Michelle Casillas). Hell, after reading that CV, who wouldn’t call these guys in for an interview? It would have been nice, then, if some of the more adventurous leanings of the musicians this crew has rubbed elbows with had found its way onto their sophomore album.
Since reading Tim Terhaar’s exposé on the new face of Muzak a few months back, I feel like some of the sting has been sucked out of my old epithet of dismissal for soft, safe indie music as “Starbucks rock.” Still, accepting the fact that we live in a world where nothing is too good, pure, or precious to be used as fuel for the engines of consumerism, I can’t help but hear this album and imagine myself standing in line for a latte (and not just because Casillas and drummer Robert DiPietro already have an interpretation of “Little Drummer Boy” on rotation in Starbucks, Old Navy, The Gap, and Banana Republic). It’s the perfect blend of smooth jazz, blues lite, and up-tempo pop rock. Casillas has a low, sultry voice, reminiscent of a Chrissie Hynde sing-talk, and the peppier songs make me think of KT Tunstall. It’s palatable, kind of familiar, and won’t demand too much of your attention.
Their first album in eight years, Showface isn’t so different from the band’s debut Silent Moving Picture, but perhaps just a little less texturally diverse. The muttering electronic buzz lingering in the background of that album’s title track, the “Passenger”-aping swing of “Steady,” and the lilting gypsy ambience of “The Frame” are all long gone. The standout tracks on this album don’t wander as far from the general pattern. There’s “Guerilla,” which generates something like menace from its lurching, hypnotic bass line, but kind of blows it when it collapses into its shimmering chorus. There’s the DiPietro-penned “2032,” which gains a buoyancy from its simplicity and provides a blank enough canvass to show off Scherr’s capable guitar work to good effect. The lead guitar, in fact, is one of the more noteworthy aspects of this set, breaking off into sporadic solos over the back-beat for almost the entire duration of songs like “No Other” or “Living Positive.” It provides a small point of interest if you train yourself to listen for it, but it tends to get overwhelmed in the mix and isn’t sufficient to the task of rescuing the milquetoast melodies.
There’s not much more that can be said for the record. The tunes are forgettable, and the lyrics, when not lackluster, are downright bad (“It was just a little thing that you said/ Went straight to my head/ I started to scream/ I looked real mean/ Now you’re acting like I’m dead”). After a nearly decade-long silence, the album seems neither necessary nor worth the wait.