For a bunch of self-proclaimed slack-asses, Kovacs and the Polar Bear have sure had a stellar year: headlining The Grey Eagle, high-profile gigs opening for Tyler Ramsey and War On Drugs, winning a best Music Video Asheville award, slots at Bele Chere and Birmingham's inaugural Secret Stages festival.
Oh yeah, and the local Americana band just finished up the swaggeringly beautiful Second Sister, hands-down its best album to date.
“This past year has been nuts for us,” frontman Nick Kovacs mumbles modestly over a shot and a beer at DeSoto Lounge. “I think we’ve just been really lucky lately.”
Luck, my friend, has nothing to do with it. As anyone who’s caught one of the band’s mesmerizing live shows can attest, there’s damn good reason why the local four-piece is knocking on national buzz’s door. One minute they’re lulling you in with a gorgeous, harmony-drenched folk tune, and the next they’re blowing you back on your heels with a soaring, cymbal-crashing, Southern rock epic.
It was exactly that live energy that KPB strove to capture on their latest album. Recorded over the span of nine months with local producer/musician Brian Landrum (Floating Action, Black Eyed Dog), Second Sister’s concept was simple and raw: Set up the band in one room, no click tracks, minimal overdubs. And, man, do they pull it off.
“There’s imperfections,” says bassist/keyboardist Chris Lee. “One thing we didn’t do on this album was overanalyze it. Brian was really good about saying, ‘That, that’s a good mess-up.’”
Featuring some of the catchiest songs the band’s ever written, the album has a loose, charming feel about it, especially on standout tracks like the thundering “Gold & Silver” or the organ-drenched opener “Dandelion.” It helps that most of the tunes have been well road-worn over the past two years (as fans will no doubt notice). Kovacs also chalks it up to the fact that this is the first album where they could really relax and take their time with the recording.
”We were more comfortable with the songs, we were more comfortable with us playing together,” says Kovacs about their studio experience. “So we weren’t really worried about anything like we used to be. We play better when we don’t care.”
Lee grins. “I also think that we just didn’t drink as much.”
Whatever the reason, it’s a major evolution from 2009’s Loathsome Teeth. Whereas that record was a generally quiet affair, at times so hushed and minimal that it came off like a Nick Kovacs solo record, Second Sister is big. It’s lush. It’s gritty. It’s got, well…
“Balls,” says Lee, laughing. “When we first got together, we weren’t loud at all. It was very calm and quiet. But I think we’ve got more personality as a band once we started going balls out.”
It’s also the the first album KPB has recorded since guitarist/keyboardist (and filmmaker) Joe Chang joined the band two years ago — cementing the current lineup along with drummer/driving force Andrew Woodward — which helps add a richer, more varied sound to the songs on Second Sister. Both Chang and Lee even contributed a few songs of their own, another KPB precedent.
“I think this is the first album that we’re all really happy with,” says Kovacs. “It really feels like Kovacs and the Polar Bear’s first album. This one’s much more of a group effort. We’ve finally clicked, I think.” He laughs. “I’m starting to feel like we’re a real band or something.”
And as for future plans? Well, besides filming a few new videos, KPB hasn’t really given it much thought. Which is just the way they like it.
“We never have a game plan,” says Kovacs. “We just don’t do that as a band. I think that that’s the best thing about us, is we aren’t real serious about it. I think it’s good not be too serious about it all. It keeps things fun, and it works for us.”
Hey, as long as they keep producing things as impressive as Second Sister, it works for us, too.
— Miles Britton is an Asheville-based freelance writer.
who: Kovacs & The Polar Bear, with the Critters
what: CD-release party
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Friday, Oct. 21 (9 p.m. $8. thegreyeagle.com)