It’s very difficult to describe Podington Bear’s user-friendly electronic music without making explicit reference to the Internet, which is not just this pseudonymous Portlander’s preferred mode of distribution, but also, in a way, his subject. Early subscribers to his podcast (where he started giving away a new song every other weekday back in 2007) would have snagged the 10 CDs’ worth of material that make up this box set for free; the low price tag of this collection ($3 per CD, cheaper than the iTunes price, $6 per album) acknowledges the unevenness of the material, which is a given with such a high level of output.
This leaves it up to the listeners to create their own personalized collection of tracks, cherry-picking the two or three hours of great material distributed over these discs. The only way to approach this much high-quality, non-threatening furniture music is to put this data cluster on shuffle, skipping around when one of P. Bear’s irrepressible, tinkly melodies starts to make you feel a little too much like the guy in this comic strip.
This music seems to be equal parts competence and unassuming whimsy. But two things about Podington Bear’s music are obvious immediately: It’s small and clean, and although it’s made up entirely of electronic instruments, it comprises the sounds of traditional instruments (pizzicato violins are particularly favored). His beats are a neutered take on boom bap, which on a typical track buttresses a somewhat confused or arbitrary bass line, a plucky melody, and an understated counter-melody. His mascot, a simple line-drawing of a teddy bear that may also be wearing a bear costume, might as well be a schematic drawing of his music; the bear’s anthropomorphic look of blank cuteness tries to pass as the opposite, just as the electronic instruments and slightly fussy, twee arrangements come across with a feeling of lived-in familiarity.
It almost has the feel of incidental music. Instead of soundtracking a film, though, it tracks along with the virtual social space of Facebook, accompaniment to ambient browsing. Appropriately, the music is more humanoid than human. It gives off warmth and comfort, but it’s ageless, scentless, too smooth and regular to reflect human emotion. So although the sheer volume of music Podington Bear has created requires some idea of progression in order to make sense (chronological progression, as we hear Podington perfect the technology, and thematic progression, as he explores new textures and ideas), breaking these tracks up into albums actually feels random. It’s near-impossible to find a bad transition between any two Podington Bear tracks.
None of this means the music is bad, however. It’s an accomplished set of thoughtful songs executed under serious constraints, and Podington Bear gives listeners plenty of chances, via the podcast and website, to figure out if that means anything to them before committing to this collection. Like teddy bears and the Internet, though, this is music at its most passive. Beyond aggressively vague song titles like “Let’s Bike!,” “Grief,” and “Tender and Curious,” and an album of Beatles songs, these tunes give no indication of being about anything in particular, and, similarly, don’t really convey anything like an experience.
It might seem incorrect to call 10 CDs’ worth of material passive, and it’s true that these discs are a good example of how the Internet gets people to work for free, since it provides what is in theory an equal-access medium for the distribution of tons of stuff you wouldn’t normally pay for. But it can make people quite confused about what stuff they should filter out and what stuff they should embrace, and if I’m hedging on Podington Bear, it’s because there’s nothing much at stake in liking or not liking his music. The concentration required to create three songs each week seems opposed to the kind of divided attention-span we spend most of our time online cultivating. Still, this ostensible lack of focused attention belies the fact that in our pottering about between different streams of information, we’re figuring out what things to like and figuring out what kind of person that makes us. That’s also work, because it can feel like unintentionally being part of a focus group, giving companies a better idea of how they can sell to you.
Podington Bear’s music is so general, so tastefully cheery, it almost completely bypasses all of the warring niches that make up the consumer’s landscape. Even as Podington Bear’s music is rooted in enthusiasm and skill, there’s also something oppressive about candyland music like this. It doesn’t ask to be liked or disliked, scrutinized or accepted, just kind of lived with — but ultimately the Bear is the kind of guest that chronically overstays his welcome.