For those not familiar (which should be none of you), Tony Sly is the frontman of seminal Cali punk band No Use For Name. Like a lot of punk and hardcore veterans, Sly’s musical influences have broadened (softened?) with time, and he’s discovered the logical, often-overlooked connection between folk music and punk music. Last year, he released his first solo, predominately acoustic album, “12-song Program,” and hit the road with the likes of Chuck Ragan, Joey Cape and Jon Snodgrass, each one an accomplished troubadour in his own right. “12 Song Program” was well-received by fans (including myself), and was a logical progression from some of the acoustic tracks found on NUFAN albums, each containing Sly’s traditional blend of melancholy and optimism, with a huge helping of self-deprecation for good measure.
“Sad Bear” does very little to continue the progression in Sly’s sound. On the contrary, “Sad Bear,” while accurately titled (as Sly sounds so much like a sad bear as to be genuinely endearing), could just as easily and accurately have been titled “12 Song Program – Volume II (Acoustic Boogaloo).” If you liked “12 Song Program,” there really is no reason that you won’t like “Sad Bear,” as the two sound very, very similar. Too similar, at times. I genuinely confused “In The End” with “Keira” from the last album; both are sweet songs written for the ladies in his life, and both are virtually identical in most every way. Similarly, “The Monster” plays like “Toaster In The Bathtub” with an accordion.
Don’t get me wrong; I genuinely like Tony Sly, and I like his solo music, “Sad Bear” included. The album does have a few unique points: the tin whistle and mandolin on the country-fied “Burgie’s, Basics and You” and “Hey God” make the songs sound closer to a Frank Turner track than typical Sly fare. “Discomfort Inn” is a dark, accordion-lead dirge that finds Sly singing in delicate falsetto, a stark contrast to the dark, minor chords of the melody. “Flying South” is the most different, featuring cello, bass clarinet, and what sounds like a wind-up music box. I would have liked to see another verse tacked on, as the songs is too short. The keyboard/midi processing on album opener “Dark Corner” (which also features Karina Denike, always a welcome treat) give the song an almost Paul McCartney’s Wings feel, though the song also comes off as too short and not quite finished. Several of the tracks are given an almost-alt-country feel (a la former bandmate Chris Shiflett’s Dead Peasants project), but Sly’s traditional songwriting pattern doesn’t vary enough to make the songs feel fresh.
All things considered, “Sad Bear” is a solid album. Sly’s strength lies in his lyrics. While the album finds him treading similar ground that “12 Step Program” walked on, though that’s not a bad thing. The bulk of the material finds Sly reflecting on his life, dealing with the trappings of being a touring singer/songwriter with a family left behind, keeping him grounded. Those of us who have rounded the thirty-year-old corner and have kids of our own can easily relate. A couple tracks do take on subject matter that is closer to NUFAN material: Sly curses the possibility of a higher power allowing such things as the current economic crisis on “Hey God.” The added touches of extra instrumentation on half of the tracks are a welcome addition, and hopefully a sign of things to come, if only Sly could get out of the habit of writing acoustic songs in a punk rock format (most of the tracks are under 2:30 long) and learn to think bigger when he takes chances. We’re aging punk fans…we can take it!