This is what I keep hearing about Kovacs & the Polar Bear: "I liked them more than I thought I would." And, indeed, following their middle-of-three-bands set at a Rocket Club showcase, most of the audience cleared out: Unfortunate for the band that had to follow Kovacs' excellent performance.
Front man Nicholas Kovacs bears a striking resemblance to Tobey Maguire, with all the requisite shy sincerity and quiet intensity. But Kovacs' sincere intensity makes sense the moment he steps to the mic: His songs are carefully crafted, the lyrics (despite a Facebook claim that this is "very uncomplicated music") are elaborate tapestries of dreamscapes, nature images, heartache, irony and dark humor.
On "Ruth," the slow-dance single off the group's 2009 self-released album Loathsome Teeth, Kovacs sings, "I want to know you like the owl knows the night time. I want to know you like the bear's paw knows the sting when he's been badgering the bee." (Worth noting that sung live, the line is "f—king with the bee," which only adds to the quasi-romantic jab of the song.)
Teeth is a solid demo, but offers only a glimmer of the group's magic in a live show. The band members share palpable chemistry on stage. And that's because the Polar Bear part of the equation: drummer Andrew Woodward, guitarist/bassist/keyboardist Chris Lee and guitarist Joe Chang (the newest addition; the Rocket Club was his second show with the band) are much more than a mere backup to the front man. Lee also sings on a few songs; every member plays more than one instrument and they rearrange themselves as deftly as Fishbone at its prime (albeit with less tossing of instruments). One song had Lee playing bass and synthesizer at the same time; one had Woodward starting in front of his kit playing a tambourine and kick drum; at one time Woodard was standing up to play a snare with one hand and the bass — guitar, not drum — with the other hand. Kovacs and Lee shared harmonies; Kovacs and Chang shared harmonies; overall the band — especially thanks to copious bird references — reaches the folkloric/harmonic pinnacle of indie folk darlings Fleet Foxes, only with the teeth of The Fruit Bats or Sea Wolf.
In fact, Kovacs & the Polar Bear is very much a cohesive unit, with worked-up parts, stage cues and — though the style is unfettered — seasoned musicianship. Elemental rock roots (Springsteen, Tom Petty) meet accomplished story telling and probably the best sense of dynamics to be found among Asheville's many rock outfits. From quiet harmonies to full-band bombastics, Kovacs & the Polar Bear can cover the range within a single song and yet maintain a degree of continuity. Balance is key for this group, from volume to the mix of electric and acoustic instruments to the sweet-but-not-cloying lyrics
"I am weak like the rabbit stuck in the fox's teeth," Kovacs sings, kicking up dust with his bashfully impassioned dancing. It's a show that ends all too soon.
For more information, visit myspace.com/kovacsandthepolarbear.