JULES & THE POLAR BEARS

OVERVIEW:
Their debut is one of the best pop albums from the New Wave era. I haven’t been too excited by any Jules Shear solo releases, as he very quickly moves away from rocking quirky pub-pop and into more commercial and boring 80s singer-songwriter territory…

THE ALBUMS:

The Funky Kings (The Funky Kings
Got No Breeding *
Fenetiks
Economy Package EP *
Bad For Business
Watch Dog (Jules Shear solo)
The Eternal Return (Jules Shear solo)
Demo-itis (Jules Shear solo)
The Third Party (Jules Shear solo)
Big Boss Sounds (Reckless Sleepers)
The Great Puzzle (Jules Shear solo)

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THE FUNKY KINGS   (1976)

(no grade)

This was Jules’ first major band – but it was more of a song-writing collective than a band proper. There are only 3 Shear compositions, and they’re all mediocre. He doesn’t seem to have found his voice yet, and nothing really points the way to the brilliance of the best Polar Bears tracks. But Jules’ songs are certainly the relative highlights on here –  the rest of the tracks are TERRIBLE! This is utterly drab West Coast commercial 70s country-ish pop (The Eagles, Jackson Browne), played with professionalism but lacking any flair whatsoever. And dull hooks. And one of the singers insists on singing like a complete moron – with his totally overblown corn-country baritone, he ruins every song he appears on. He may be responsible for some of the all time most ridiculous vocals I’ve ever heard on a record – he’ll have to battle it out with Bootsy Collins! This whole album is a waste of time, and better left forgotten.

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GOT NO BREEDING   (1978)

A

THIS record is just fantastic. It belongs right up there with that group of “late-70s not-quite-power-pop, sorta pub rock, kinda punky, kinda new wave” records like Graham Parker’s “Squeezing Out Sparks,” Nick Lowe’s “Jesus Of Cool” and Joe Jackson’s “I’m Your Man.” Every song has a great hook, the band rocks with youthful energy, and Jules Shear tears into his vocals with infectious enthusiasm. His voice is incredible on this record – off-putting at first, it then grows on you and soon you realize just how expressive and varied is the instrument. Though in some ways this is just simply rock done right, there’s an eccentricity to Shear’s hook writing that makes every song unpredictable enough to be interesting, yet still humble enough to be good rock. There are also some totally gorgeous moments on here, exemplified by the brilliant “Shadows Break.” My absolute favorite is “Black Fever Sleep,” which is crammed with great hooks and ideas. I can’t believe “You Just Don’t Wanna Know” wasn’t a hit! This is one of those obscure albums that’s so professionally made, and so darned engaging, it shows you the extent to which rock history is written by the quality of a given artists’ contemporary publicity. Rumor has it this record was inadequately marketed – I can believe it, as it’s probably one of the most immediately appealing “unknown” albums I’ve ever come across.  There’s simply no good reason, say,  The Cars’ debut should be bigger than this album. Some gripes – the A-side is stronger than the B-Side, and there are some moments of corniness on the latter that points the way to some of Shear’s later records. But for the most part, this is an essential listen for anyone interested in this era and this style.

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FENETIKS  (1979)

B-

The Polar Bears’ second album isn’t nearly as good as the debut. The energy ain’t as fierce, Jules generally uses one vocal tone, the band doesn’t sound as alive, and the synths are starting to get out of control. It seems like they may have been going for a more overtly “new wave” sound here, but ultimately everything reads as less inspired and organic. There’s a gaping sore-spot on Side 2 – the 7 minute long and way too corny “Real Enough To Love.” The draggy ballad ends with a pretty melodic idea presented via some interesting harmonies, but for the most part it’s lame and unmemorable, and really points the way to Jules’ solo records. But there’s good news! The A-side of this record contains some of the best songs Jules ever wrote, and with a little push in the production, could have been as good as anything on the debut. The album opens with a lesser track – “Good Reason” sounds like it was tailored to be a radio hit, but the hook just isn’t that strong. The next four songs are what the album is all about for me – there’s the wacky and exciting “I Give Up,” which has a hilarious vocal performance and some great ideas. The overall best track may be the moody and melodic reggae number, “The Smell Of Home,” a unique arrangement for the band and the only real time on the whole album I can hear Jules truly pushing out of normal boundaries. “Fate” rocks hard, and utilizes a totally awesome and quirky major to minor concept in it’s chorus that just rules. Finally, “Faded Red” has a great call-and-response style chorus, and lots of energy. Side 2 totally drops the ball – “What Do You Belong To?” and “You’re So Complete” are both decent but unexceptional, though the latter has a pretty nifty guitar hook. Then there’s the afore-mentinoed 7 minute snooze-fest, which basically stops the record dead in it’s tracks before it picks back up slightly to end with two more forgettable rockers. The closing number “All Caked Up” is damned near atrocious. If you’re a huge fan of the first record (and you SHOULD be), this is definitely worth hearing for the first side. But there’s no doubt to me that the band was already slipping up by this point.

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ECONOMY PACKAGE EP   (1980)

B+

This 4 song mini-album was released a year after “Fenetiks,” but I’m guessing it was recorded around the time of the debut. It sounds like outtakes from the first record, and two of these 4 songs are simply wonderful! All the arrangements sound great, with no annoying synths, and Jules is singing with his more ragged and exciting earlier tone. “Sometimes Real Life” is a catchy, quality tune that could have easily fit on the debut. And “This Fabrication” is one of the best Polar Bears tracks –  I have no idea how it didn’t make it onto a proper record. It destroys nearly everything on “Fenetiks.” The other two cuts are decent, but a bit forgettable. “Born Out Of Heat” has a good verse, however. Man, do I wish these guys made a couple other records comparable to this one and the debut!!!!

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BAD FOR BUSINESS  (1980)

C

The Polar Bears’ third record was shelved by the label. I believe they deemed it too uncommercial, though what they probably meant to say was, “It sucks.” Which isn’t entirely true – there are still some interesting hooks on here, and everything is well-written. But the PRESENTATION has gotten so lame, with even MORE synths and less rocking energy…and Jules’ singing style seems to have morphed into some bizarre new wave combination of late-period Rick Danko and Donald Fagen – it just doesn’t work. Nearly every song on here falls flat for me in the production department, and the new wave-pop vibe doesn’t suit these guys nearly as much as the quirky pub rock one of the previous albums. On top of all that, there are very few truly memorable tunes on here – though the Hall & Oates-esque “It’s In Love” probably could have been a hit with less affected vocals. “In Love With The Ballet” is weird, and weird is good, though I’m not sure how good the song is. “Over and Over” and “Problems” have catchy and oddball chorus hooks, but they sound so neutered by synths and limp drums. Later on we get the pretty harmonies in “All Day Moods,” which probably has Jules’ best singing on the record. More harmonies (of the CSN-ilk this time) adorn the chorus of “When The World Looks Old,” a decent and well-written song. “Why Fight”  is the most overtly “new wave” of any of the Polar Bears tracks, sounding as it does like a lost dBs track (with cheesier production of course). Since this record wasn’t released until the 90s, I can’t say for certain that this was the exact intended final product. But it certainly doesn’t add much to the legacy of the band, and isn’t really worth hearing even for big fans of the earlier Polar Bears work.

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WATCH DOG   (1983)

C+

For his first solo record, Jules enlisted as producer one Mr. Todd Rundgren. Now, that sounds like a very good idea, and I was quite excited to get my hands on this album. I am intimately familiar with Todd’s work, and he can be a serious boon to a struggling artist…though he also tends to turn all of his productions into “Rundgren” albums.  But Jules shares a lot of qualities with Todd in his writing and singing, so I figured this would be at least INTERESTING. Well, it’s pretty darn boring to be honest. It sounds at times like a sub-par version of Jeff Lynne’s 80s production work with Harrison and Petty. Rundgren seems to get a lot of flack for glossing up Shear’s songs, but I’m actually quite happy to hear less annoying synths and MORE production choices, as opposed to the personality-less sloppiness of the last two Polar Bears records. It’s just that the MATERIAL doesn’t go beyond decent professional retro-pop. There are some nice hooks, and some nice production ideas, but most of the time I find this record generic and forgettable. The best song is the most famous – “All Through The Night,” has a catchy and endearing hook and would become a bit hit as a Cyndi Lauper track. The opener “Whispering Your Name” has a Roy Orbison-esque melody and a decent chorus, but it’s too corny and commercial for me. The rest of the album is a formulaic blur – though it’s nice to hear the boys go for a big Brian Wilson-tribute epic with “The Longest Drink.” Unfortunately that track sounds like a template for what Todd would soon do way better with XTC on “Skylarking,” – it’s pretty, but just not interesting enough to justify it’s length. “Standing Still” is super tight and pro, but again – overly mannered and too obvious melodically. The album closes with a TERRIBLE and nearly 8 minute bluesy narrative about a failed marriage – the song has a lame melody, ugly singing…not particularly surprisingly the attempt by these two knob-twiddlers to put together a big rocking blues number just falls face down FLAT. Oh well – worth hearing for those interested in Rundgren more than Shear, this is a big disappointment for me.

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SINCE HE’S BASICALLY LOST ME BY THIS POINT, I’M ONLY GOING TO LISTEN ONCE TO SOME OF THE LATER JULES SOLO RECORDSNO GRADES FROM THIS POINT ON UNLESS SOMETHING HITS ME HARD ENOUGH!

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THE ETERNAL RETURN   (1985)

That didn’t take long! Ever since he followed up “Got No Breeding” with the less-alive sounding “Fenetiks,” Mr. Shear has been on a downward spiral into 80s production hell. And here he lands with an atrocious thud. This is an insufferably dated and basically just terrible 80s “modern” sounding pop album. It’s garish, boring, and nearly impossible to sit through. The opener, “If She Knew What She Wants” is an OK generic pop song that became a hit for The Bangles. And the cutesy girl-boy duet “Here She Comes” has a bit of charm. “Empty Out The House” has some quirky vocal production, and is probably the only other moderately entertaining track. But the keyboard tones and drum sounds are just totally tasteless throughout this boring record. And that’d be fine (if disappointing) for me if Jules was still writing the off-kilter melodies of his early days – but as he’s resorted to completely formulaic sub-Jeff Lynne retro-pop 80s radio songs, I simply have no use for him anymore. We’re a tiny little step away from your basic adult-contemporary schmaltz at this point. Why is he so obsessed with synths? He allowed Steven Hague to compromise many of his Polar Bears tracks, and now he’s letting some other asshole (though it could very well be Jules himself for all I know) crap up his solo tracks with the dorkiest sounds on the planet. This happened, on a certain level, to Graham Parker too. What’s the matter with these guys?! This is an absolute artistic dead end.

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DEMO-ITIS   (1986)

It’s surely a breath of fresh air to hear some Shear songs without nullifying 80s production! This compilation of his home demos lacks a lot of the polish that would mar his solo records, though it’s still got it’s fair share of ugly synths. But overall, this is probably the most enjoyable solo Shear release I’ve heard. I’m not sure where the songs date from, and it’s likely they span eras – but the vocals and vibe on this is mostly low-key and ragged, and there are even some creative melodies and slightly weirder ideas to offset the increasingly “professional” song-writing Shear began churning out. It’s a bit overlong, and due to it being a compilation, there’s no real flow or catharsis when it’s over. But it’s a nice collection of well-performed pop songs – nothing comes close to the best Polar Bears, but at least it sounds like the enthusiastic Jules from that band, as opposed to some 80s hack.

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BIG BOSS SOUNDS (RECKLESS SLEEPERS)   (1988)

Reckless Sleepers  were Jules’ first “band” after the Polar Bears broke up. And for much of it’s running time, their debut serves up overproduced 80s pop garbage. This is like a less catchy Huey Lewis & The News Album, with a bunch of unfunky funk grooves and a pub-rocky atmosphere, coupled to big boomy 80s drums and terrible synth sounds. The playing is a bit more elaborate, however, due to this being a “supergroup” or sorts (the bass playing on “Mesmerized” is very in-your-face, and also incredibly distasteful – and BTW, the song itself is probably the worst I’ve ever heard come out of a Jules record). The second half is WAY better than first here  – at “Big Before It Bursts,” the energy level and taste-factor kicks up a couple notches, and the record becomes moderately enjoyable if totally generic. The afore-mentioned “Big Before It Bursts” and ‘Mary Lou” are both OK, and the title track is kinda fun. “Notting Hill Gate” has a decent hook. Roger McGuinn covered ‘If We Never Meet Again,” which sounded to me like a totally unremarkable song in every way. This is a weak and forgettable and very 80s “rock” album, and though I would never listen to it again, I can certainly imagine a man wearing khakis grooving along to Side 2 in his mini-van.

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THE THIRD PARTY   (1989)

This is just Jules with acoustic guitar accompaniment, and as a result, it’s the classiest album he’s made since “Got No Breeding.” The singing is impassioned, gritty, and Dylan-esque…the songs are mostly folk and blues based. None of this material is particularly striking, but it’s often lyrically interesting and Jules sells his songs well. I’m certainly ecstatic that the 80s pop production has been left in the dust. Jules sounds like a REAL artist again! HOWEVER, this is generally pretty boring stuff, and much to my chagrin, Jules seems firmly lodged out off quirk-pop territory at this point. He appears to be moving into that “sleepy sad sorta Beatles-esque” folk-pop sound that would be a staple of people like Aimee Mann, Elliot Smith, Michael Penn, etc. Which makes sense due to his intimate connection with Aimee and ‘Til Tuesday. And I personally find that “genre” professional and nice, but also dull as hell. The songs mostly ran together to me here, but “The First Freeze After The Fall” and “The Once Lost Returns” made the biggest initial impressions.
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THE GREAT PUZZLE   (1992)

I can’t handle this anymore, Mr. Shear. I don’t mind that you’ve moved from your much more appealing (to me) early rocking style to a decidedly “adult-pop” sound. But I DO mind that you’ve given up on interesting melodies/arrangements and now find it acceptable to present some moderately interesting lyrics in totally generic packages. Your singing has grown lower and whispery – there’s no Dylan-esque pushing for the high notes here. It just sounds like you’re coasting along, to be honest. And this album is almost completely uninteresting in every particular – the best moments (the bouncy “The Mystery’s All Mine,” the title track) are relatively nice in the context of all the dullness surrounding them, but they don’t really do much for me in a general context. The title track is probably the only song I can ever imagine myself listening to again – though even that one is a bit too radio-ready and the phrasing of the title hook is quite corny. This is very professionally written and produced, but unfortunately it’s not anywhere in the same arena as interesting or unique.

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