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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Winter Bear’s Deceptively Sweet Garage Pop

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As Erin Dorbin tells it, she chose Milwaukee. Dorbin had been bouncing from city to city for most of her adult life, either for school or for work, but Milwaukee was the first city she moved to not out of commitment or obligation, but solely out of affection. Over her scattered visits to the city, she had fallen for its people, its architecture (something she has an eye for as an architectural historian) and, significantly, its music scene.

“For years before I moved here I was buying records by bands coming out of Milwaukee and out of Wisconsin,” recalls Dorbin, who settled here in 2010. “There was so much energy, so much opportunity here. I experienced people in Riverwest not wanting to travel 15 minutes to Bay View or vice versa, and I thought, ‘You are all spoiled!’ Any other place you’d kill for an opportunity to go out, and here people didn’t want to drive 15 minutes. I used to drive hours to see the bands I wanted to see, and here you could see them almost every night.”

Dorbin had some solid band experience under her belt as a member of The Cave Weddings, a New York garage-pop act that released a spree of charming singles over their brief, half-year existence. Starting a new band in Milwaukee, however, required patience. “There are so many people here, great musicians, but everybody had four or five projects, so it took a little time to assemble the right group,” she says. So in the meantime, she played in the rock ’n’ roll group The Spectras and wrote songs for herself, banking them until she found the right outlet for them. Some of those songs make up the pair of 7-inch singles she’s released as Winter Bear.

“In my previous bands, I would write songs but I was always terrified to sing them, so I would leave that to another bandmate,” Dorbin explains. “Winter Bear was my first attempt to do everything from start to finish, do it on my own.”

Out now on Detroit’s Selfish Agenda Records, Winter Bear’s latest 7-inch, “Take It Back”/“Looking For Fun,” showcases Dorbin’s knack for peppy guitar pop. It’s rock ’n’ roll at its most straightforward—simple, immediate and relentlessly melodic, with echoes of Buddy Holly and ’60s girl groups. But unlike Dum Dum Girls, Best Coast and some recent bands that have played similarly sugary sounds for shtick, the retro accents in Dorbin’s songs are more accidental than anything else. She doesn’t drench her singles in reverb or fake Phil Spector production, and her music isn’t as carefree as it might seem on the surface. These are feel-good songs about feeling anything but.

“I think people hear the music and think ‘beach!,’ ‘summer fun!’ and don’t realize that the last two singles were enveloped in a darker experience,” Dorbin says. “I have never corrected them because it’s better to have them interpreted as fun and carefree, rather than vulnerable.”

Winter Bear will play a release show for the 7-inch on Thursday, July 31, at Quarters Rock ’n’ Roll Palace, then hit the road for a tour that will take them through New York and Nashville. They’ve got a few more shows lined up for when they return. Meanwhile, Dorbin is also active with a second band, No Bueno, an outlet for songs slightly edgier than the ones she records with Winter Bear. Basically, she says, she’s throwing herself into her music to make up for lost time.

“For a long time I had wanted to write songs, but I didn’t start until I was in my mid 20s, and it was only in my late 20s that I really got comfortable with it,” she says. “So it took me until a little bit later in life to get into all this, but now I’m having the fun I should have had as a teenager in a band.”

Winter Bear share their release show, Thursday, July 31, at Quarters Rock ’n’ Roll Palace (900 East Center St.), with Kia Rap Princess and Dirty Dancing. Doors open at 9 p.m.