Long before Leslie Bear was of national interest, she was a staple of the New Brunswick, N.J. music scene. During the early part of the decade in some of the same basements where punk bands such as Screaming Females first began turning heads, Bear, who goes by the moniker Long Beard, played her drumless, homespun confections of shimmering guitars and ambiguous near-whispers to college students who almost universally loved her music. Her debut EP, 2014’s Holy Crow, became a staple of the area’s college radio station.
Holy Crow’s best song, the devastating voice-and-guitar-only reverie, “Hates the Party,” appeared in a sweeping full-band rendition on Long Beard’s proper debut album, 2015’s Sleepwalker. The re-recorded song suggested that Bear can tap into new dimensions of her music with a full band in tow, while other Sleepwalker tracks like “Someplace” and “Moths” testified to the power she can pull from the dawn-like, percussion-free blur of her earliest songs.
Means to Me, Bear’s second album, operates entirely in the pristinely produced vein of the rerecorded “Hates the Party.” Every song features live drums, astoundingly bright and audible guitars, and vocals that prevent listeners from playing any guessing games about Bear’s lyrics. Often, this unexpectedly lucid approach shines a potent light on the song parts that might otherwise remain dark, and occasionally, it results in her best music to date. At other times, though, the clarity doesn’t let the mystery be, rendering the songs completely flat.
Third single “Getting By” is a prime example of how Long Beard’s music benefits from sharp production. Every guitar arpeggio is properly illuminated, ensuring that Bear’s tale of needing another person’s validation (“Only you can make me feel like I need / Something more to do”) is poignant rather than pitiable. “Snow Globe,” which follows “Getting By,” finds a gorgeous middle ground between Bear’s early haze and her present clarity, complete with reversed guitars dancing around twinkling keys and Bear’s crestfallen singing. When she asks “Aren’t you better without me rooted in your town?” in one of the album’s few instances of less-than-sky-bright vocals, it’s clear the answer is a heartbreaking yes.
“Sweetheart,” the track after “Snow Globe,” is Bear’s best song to date. It showcases Bear’s voice at its most tender and unaltered, featuring vivid images of swirling hair, intertwined legs and subsequent distance between the song’s characters (“If you’re alone / Then what am I?”). Lustrous, reverb-drenched rhythm guitars pave the way for clean, piercing lead guitars to enter, which eventually interlock with glistening synths for a 90-second, goosebump-inducing instrumental outro that speaks volumes without saying a word. It’s as stark a reminder of the inherent power and beauty of music as you’re likely to hear this year.
Which makes so much of what follows on Means to Me sadly underwhelming. Few tracks after “Sweetheart” stand out from one another, as these songs’ vivid yet greyscale guitars and slightly vague vocal lines resemble each other so strongly that they veer on indiscernible. The album’s final six tracks linger weakly at best, though their strong points are remarkable. The brief vocal harmonies on the chorus of “Forever,” the unprecedented double-time feels Bear weaves in and out of during “Means to Me,” and the faintly poisoned intro and mildly overdriven outro of “The Last” leap forward from the clouded abyss, preventing Means to Me from completely falling flat on its home stretch. It’s hard to doubt that Bear has come a long way since her humble New Brunswick origins, but Means to Me suggests she has far more to go.