With no shortage of singer-songwriter acts cluttering up the indie-rock and Americana landscapes, it’s often difficult for artists to distinguish themselves from the Ryan Adamses, Josh Ritters, Josh Rouses, and Ben Kwellers of the word. That’s something Stephen Kellogg and his band the Sixers have struggled to do over the course of their career, having kicked around in the minor leagues and on the college circuit for well over a decade and even landing a brief stint with a major label, but their latest effort, The Bear, is an attention-grabbing, self-assured set.
Kellogg’s lyrics are sharp and on point here, with “Mabeline” and “Shady Esperanto and the Young Hearts” weaving twisted, American gothic narratives laced with gallows humor. Standout “A (With love)” is an empathetic portrait of how a family disintegrates following a teenage daughter’s unwanted pregnancy, turning on the line, “It’s cruel people who give you love when you least expect.” If he occasionally lapses into shopworn clichés on “See Yourself” and “Satisfied Man,” he salvages his songs with well-turned phrases and a gift for an ingratiating melody.
Also working in the album’s favor is its variety. Whenever Bear threatens to descend into the dire, self-important monotony that sinks so many other Americana records, Kellogg breaks into a bit of sunny, Todd Rundgren-style pop on “All Part of the Show” or busts out the handclaps and piano power chords on “Shady Esperanto.” These aren’t radical departures—these songs fit readily alongside the weepy honky-tonk shuffle of “A (with love)” and the delicate “Oh, Adeline”—but they give the album enough texture that it keeps things interesting. Thanks to Kellogg’s predilections for both confessional and post-modern songwriting tropes and his willingness to explore a range of sounds within a straightforward, likable roots-rock frame, Bear breathes new life into a long-hibernating genre.