By Christian Hagen | Music | May 27, 2009 |
By Christian Hagen | Music | May 27, 2009 |
Reviewing a Grizzly Bear album is not the same as reviewing any other album.
This is probably fitting, as Grizzly Bear is not quite the same as any other band. You can boil them down to their essence, and you can find elements of folk, but the challenge, and indeed the beauty, of their music is that it’s folk floating in a spinning void. The voices of the various band members, who share lead vocals throughout this album, echo through space, and as the music orbits around its emotional center, it passes the listener, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, sometimes very close, sometimes distant, but always present, always there if you’re willing to listen. Their sound is unique and utterly captivating.
What makes Veckatimest, as well as either of their previous releases (Yellow House or Horn of Plenty), difficult to review is that Grizzly Bear, as much as any band, exemplifies the classic cliché, “patience is a virtue.” Not because the music isn’t listenable from the start; indeed, of any Grizzly Bear album, this seems to be the most immediately accessible. But It’s almost impossible to capture all of the intricacy, the brilliant detail of each arrangement, the subtle nuances, in one listen. Indeed, it may take several forced listens as you wonder, “What’s the big deal?” before it suddenly jumps out at you. I’m disappointed by every new Grizzly Bear release the first few days, and then I can’t stop listening to it. For any other band, this would be a serious criticism. But with Grizzly Bear, it’s almost a compliment to their skill; their music holds up significantly better over months or years than many of their peers and even predecessors.
This isn’t to say their music is without compare. In fact, when I first started the opening track, “Southern Point,” I was momentarily concerned that I’d accidentally picked up the new Cat Stevens. There is a definite classic sound amidst the modern experimentalism. The beginning of “Fine For Now” recalls “Horse With No Name.” But Grizzly Bear is distinctly their own animal (sorry, I had to make one bad pun in this review), and their signature blend of vocal trickery and carefully orchestrated waxes and wanes shine through perhaps better here than ever before.
While it retains the feel of their previous work, Veckatimest is something of a new direction for the band. Their first album, the slow but honest Horn of Plenty, was written entirely by Ed Droste, and was practically a solo project. Their second, Yellow House, was more of a two-man effort, with Droste sharing the duties with guitarist Daniel Rossen. But, according to the band, Veckatimest marks the first time the band has collaborated as a whole. It shows. Clearly the band has built off of their past work, and no one band member takes the spotlight for any serious length of time.
Some have also called Veckatimest the band’s “happy” album, a departure from the moodiness of their first two albums. Judging solely by song titles like “Fine For Now,” “Cheerleader,” and “Ready, Able,” there is a definite case to be made. But you should know better than to judge by song titles. The lyrics are no less melancholy; the aforementioned “Cheerleader” contains lines like “I’m shooting them myself/I should have made it matter.” There is always a sad spirit hiding in the depths of Grizzly Bear’s collective sonic void, but when blended so beautifully amidst glittering vocal harmonies, the emotion is engrossing rather than alienating or frustrating.
The songs work together beautifully, and it’s easy to become lost in the dreamscape of the music. For this reason, it’s hard to find any standout tracks. The only really obvious standout is “Two Weeks,” the built-in single which, for all its upbeat energy, doesn’t sound forced or thrown together. It may be the most purely radio-ready song the band has ever produced, but it’s still thankfully Grizzly Bear, quite unlike a band struggling to break through its own shyness. Indeed, Grizzly Bear is almost as famous for not being able to break out in the indie scene as they are for anything. A New York band with no gimmicks, no distinct look, a transformative sound, Grizzly Bear has never flirted with mainstream success. Whether this new song will project them forward or not will depend mostly on marketing, because the song is fantastically catchy, wonderfully harmonic, and radiantly beautiful.
From there, the listener can play favorites all he or she wants. If you prefer the darker side of Grizzly Bear’s soul, the almost schizophrenic “Dory” will probably grab you about midway through, as it’s simple and almost quaint opening verse eventually falls into an almost nerve-wrecking chorus, slightly terrifying but still understated. A personal favorite of mine is the aforementioned “Ready, Able”, which builds with grace and a wonderful mix of classical instruments and computerized effects.
I feel no trepidation in saying that Grizzly Bear has grown to be one of my favorite bands in today’s indie rock arena. Their musical sensibilities are impressive without being flashy, intellectual without being inaccessible, heartfelt without being whiny or arrogant. They carry influences and contemporaries on their shoulders, and throw them casually into that same spinning void where their own music resides, ever moving, echoing without walls, pulling the listener in little by little until he or she is just as much a part of them as the band members themselves. For those with patience, and for those who seek music in which to lose themselves without fear, there are few better bands than Grizzly Bear, and few albums quite like Veckatimest.
Christian Hagen is a music journalist from Minneapolis (who is also in a band), who likes to waste his time writing about nothing, and who has yet to launch his own website (though one is on its way), so for now he can only link to his MySpace profile.