By Michael J. West | Published December 2023
Bassist Todd Sickafoose spent the 15 years between his recording debut (2008’s Tiny Resistors) and his newly released album Bear Proof touring with rocker Ani DiFranco and arranging and orchestrating the score for Broadway’s Hadestown. Perhaps that explains Bear Proof’s indie-rock edge, as well as its dramatic — though one might say cinematic more than theatrical — sweep. Or, perhaps not: These are the same ideas Sickafoose had unleashed on Tiny Resistors. Now they’re more refined, more considered, calculated for maximum impact.
Performed and recorded by Sickafoose’s octet as one long, nonstop piece, Bear Proof is as unified as that suggests, but also episodic. Some episodes are more discrete than others. “Switched On” announces itself with a thudding piano chord (from Erik Deutsch) that simply cuts off the soft Allison Miller cymbal fills that end the preceding “Bent Into Shape,” whereas on “Flush,” the whispers of Ben Goldberg’s clarinet and Sickafoose’s bass flows naturally and almost seamlessly into the melted guitar line Adam Levy begins on “Magnetic North.” The ebbs and flows in between those segues tend to build slowly, carefully and temporarily. What counts as a swelling crescendo of guitar, cornet (Kirk Knuffke) and accordion (Rob Reich) takes nearly five minutes to develop and is over in a few seconds.
All of this means that it’s not an album for the impatient. Bear Proof’s pleasures accrue gradually and often come in carefully contained packets like “Magnetic North.” There are deposits of lush orchestration on “Turns Luck,” for example, but the payoff comes not in their climax but in the release of the gentle piano solo that flows out once they’ve passed. Conversely, it’s the tension side that makes Jenny Scheinman’s taut, intense violin solo on “Switched On” so compelling. The album has the goods; wait for them.