In Brief: The “live band” energy of several tracks meshes well with Grizzly Bear’s keen attention to texture and detail. That’s enough to make up for a slight lack of content.
Sometimes a lot of hype can hurt a band. I think we all know this intuitively, but in an age where it’s often believed that bad publicity is better than no publicity, we forget that this sword cuts both ways. Too much good publicity can irritate people, or at least make it seem like the case is being way overstated. It can make the difference between listening to an album that is pretty good and recognizing it as such, and listening to a record you’re led to expect is one of the best ever, only to come out of it feeling like “That was OK, I guess”. it’s not like it’s anyone’s fault for generating the hype – folks just hear stuff they like and get excited about it and hope that excitement translates into someone else giving it a listen. Sometimes we just forget that not everyone gets excited by the same sounds. And when I first listened to Grizzly Bear‘s Veckatimest, this was sort of how I felt – it’s not like the band was all over mainstream media or anything, but indie critics and bloggers and personal friends of mine seemed to be all abuzz over it while I was like, “Eh, it’s OK.” I was pretty sure this band was too subdued to be my thing, and that it wouldn’t be worth writing my own review, until I started seeing some of the backlash pop up as folks started to investigate what all the fuss was about and I thought, “Well, that’s not fair either – it’s a good record even if I’m not in love with.” So I figured I might as well make my own muddled attempt to figure out what I liked and disliked about the thing, and try to find some middle ground.
I should probably explain what the heck kind of music Grizzly Bear makes before I go any further, for the folks who have had the good fortune of not being exposed to the hype. I’d put them up there on my list of “bands with deceptive names”, because this is one of those bands with big ideas and mostly small sounds to convey them with, not a band who comes roaring out of the gates with ferocious rock & roll. It’s indie rock, obviously, but that label glosses over the fact that there are subtle elements of experimental jazz, little snippets of electronica, the occasional wayward classical instrument, and a surprising love for old-timey melodies to be found drifting about in their musical landscape. They’re an act that’s just as capable of producing a happy-go-lucky pop song as they are of creating a faint, difficult, brooding slow-burner that sounds almost as if parts of it could have been recorded underwater. It’s not “lo-fi” (I got slapped on the hand for mistakenly calling it that when trying to sum up my first few impressions), but it’s a record that is likely to leave you fiddling with the volume knob if listened to through any medium other than headphones. Grizzly Bear seems to prefer sneaking subtleties up under your skin, rather than walloping you over the head with a sweet hook. The catch is, most of their songs turn out to be pretty memorable if you can get over the often unassuming way that they get started. That’s the kind of thing that gets the indie critics excited, I think – when the goal of music seems to be more about texture and less about an obvious message that must be communicated or an upfront melodic hook. There’s something in all of the contrary twists and turns here that, despite my inability to grab onto much of anything solid at first, keeps me coming back to examine the details.
What’s really weird about Grizzly Bear is that they sound like they could find favor well outside of the ironic, subvert-your-expectations approach of most indie rock, and make it as a legitimate jam band or vocal group if they really wanted to. I’m not saying that they should do either of these things. But listening to the interlocking croons of Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen (and the backing vocal contributions of their other two bandmates), I’m tempted to picture them in white suits and ties, cradling those old-school microphones you see in movies taking place in the 1950’s or whatever, melting young hearts while singing about nothing in particular. And when the guitars and drums get worked up enough, I can see them getting a lot of hoots and hollers in some nightclub from a similar era. it takes a band with more of a do-it-yourself approach to twist these elements around and sometimes bury them altogether, either because they love to experiment with the expected forms that such songs would normally take, or because they’re convinced that silence is just as interesting of an element to sculpt a song around as noise is. I suspect that this approach means that each person listening to the record could come up with different points where the band got it right, and then others where the band is frustrating us with a base hit where they could have score a home run. And I’m not sure any of us are right.
The most baffling thing about Veckatimest (which, by the way, is named after an uninhabited island in Massachussetts, if that helps at all to put you in the right frame of mind for their sometimes isolating sound) is actually its track order. This might just be my ear for flashy hooks noticing this, but the band positioned the two most upbeat tracks on the album right at the beginning, leaving most of the rest (other than an occasional energetic spot in the back half) to rise up slowly out of the murky waters. For some folks, that might help the continuity a bit, but for me, that’s got me hooked at first and then suddenly feeling like the dumb kid sitting near the back of class, raising his hand and asking for another explanation because he just plain doesn’t get it. However, for “not getting it”, I’m still enjoying it a good deal more than I expected to. So let’s explore that a bit.
1. Southern Point
This is the track that got me all excited, and inadvertently misdirected me in terms of what to expect from Grizzly Bear. It’s more kinetic than anything else on the album by a long shot, and if there’s ever a time when I’d call someone’s acoustic guitar skills “bad@$$”, this would be it. That’s a term normally reserved for more electric exploits, but just listening to the the fast fingerwork here, I’m taken back to some of my favorite moments by guitarists such as Dave Matthews or Scott Denté, who have more of a “percussive” approach. An intriguing guitar melody and thrilling bass ricochet about against the backdrop of an unusual chord progression, starting off with a jazzy beat that gradually develops into a tasty slab of jangle-rock. It’s all a bit of escapism, really, as a man cryptically tells his lover that he’s gone away on a retreat of some sort, offering the baffling contradiction, “You’ll never find me now/but I’ll return to you/if you return to me.” Rossen and Droste’s voices mix beautifully here, ensuring there’s never a dull moment in the song, and when the electric guitar kicks in and the whole thing goes to warp speed, I’m absolutely enthralled. It’s my favorite track on the album (and one of my favorites of 2009 so far), and while I wouldn’t expect them to do the same thing 12 times, I find myself wishing the band had sprinkled a few more aggressive moments like this throughout the album.
2. Two Weeks
The second half of the one-two punch that opens this album is pretty much the perfect pop song. The giddy, insistent rhythm of the piano all but guarantees it’ll wind up in an iPod commercial one of these days (not necessarily a bad thing), and the so-sweet-it’ll-rot-your-teeth vocal hook gives away a secret love of The Beach Boys. This is one of those moments where I can picture this band in black and white, crooning on some wholesome variety show back in the day – the lyrics may be fragmented and obtuse as all get-out, but there’s a genuine, romantic yearning just oozing from the way the band performs this one. Listening closer, I can pick out “a routine malaise”, and “quarter half a mile”, and the repeated promise “I told you I would stay”, which hints at a word of encouragement to a person going through a depression, a willingness to see them through the little baby steps that’ll get them back to feeling better. Whatever the intent behind the words, this is one of those songs that pretty much plasters a huge smile on your face. You’ll try to resist, but you’ll fail.
3. All We Ask
Hope you enjoyed, the immediate, hook-driven nature of those first two songs, because now it’s time to throw that mindset out the window and let patience be your guide. The quiet, watery guitar intro to this song is a good test to see if you’re ready for this, coalescing into a rhythm that seems even slower when the song truly gets going. There are definite moments of beauty to be found in Ed Droste’s slow, mournful pleading here, and the melody turns interesting corners as the drums and bass lazily bump along. But those moments of beauty seem to come and go amidst a sleepy haze, so while I’ve come to the point of finding this song agreeable, I can’t say that I’m in love with it. The band eventually settles into an easygoing coda, handclaps and all, while sweetly repeating “I can’t get out of what I’m into with you”, and it sounds like one of those vamps that should be a really sweet comedown after an intense moment, but the preceding intensity never manifested, so it sort of feels unearned.
4. Fine For Now
The cascading “Ooh-ooh”s that open this number probably should have gotten my attention sooner than they did – I’ll admit that with this song I was guilty of listening for tempo and rhythm and I failed to notice the inherent beauty of its angelic approach at first. The wispy electric guitar and little rolling bits of drum and bass, while not necessarily a good way to build any sort of rhythmic momentum, give the song an unusual texture, and before you know it, the angrier tone of the rhythm guitar has snuck up on you, its loud, repetitive stabs punctuating the song’s chorus. In between those buildups and releases of energy, Droste sings the enigmatic lines: “We’re all faltering/How’d I help with that?/If it’s all or nothing, then let me go.” Which is vague enough to refer to just about anything, but the way he sings it just has that certain “swagger” to it that makes it work. This song lies somewhere between “experimental post-rock” and “chilled out vocal jazz”, and you’d almost think those sweet voices and the freakish energy of the guitar shouldn’t go together, but give it a couple spins and I think you’ll agree it’s an addictive concoction.
Slow, even drums get this song going – it’s understated enough that the band doesn’t seem to be aiming for pop perfection here, but all the same, this is a nice break from the relative “looseness” of the last few tracks. Daniel Rossen is at the mic again here after his delicious turn on “Two Weeks” (I sure hope I’m not mixing these guys up), and he has this quiet approach as if he’s singing a note to himself, a reminder to take heart and to let go of some pain that’s holding him back. The ineterplay between the drums and bass, though subtle, is what makes the song stick in my head, and there’s a youth choir that sneaks in near the end of the song, their wordless vocals adding a layer of angel dust to a simple but effective song.
I always think of Finding Nemo when I listen to this one, which is obviously because the title reminds me of the forgetful blue fish in that film. There’s a wandering melody that seems to almost forget the key it started in at times, and a bit of marine imagery involving a ship submerging into “the watery deep”. I simultaneously like and dislike the oddball vocal approach here, since the primary refrain has a warped enough tune to it that it’s mildly unsettling, and yet the tones of these guys’ voices remind me of something out of a really old movie that takes place in some New England city during a blizzard. There’s some odd electronic warping going on in the middle of that, too, and a woodwind or two. Some days I enjoy it, some days I feel like it goes nowhere and sputters out at the end.
7. Ready, Able
I had to hear a live version of this one before it solidified as one of my favorites. The band seems to put a bit more oomph into it in that setting, turning the grumbling, rhythmically ambiguous guitar intro into something a bit more driving even though the basic ingredients of the song are the same. But I’ve come to enjoy the album version quite a bit, which doesn’t quite give away its rhythm of 6/8 (due the contrary backstrokes from the second guitar) until the melody takes off leading up to the chorus, and suddenly the song is airborne, with the sound of an onmichord overlaying a starry sort of feeling upon a simple breakdown of drum and bass. It’s the closest that Grizzly Bear comes to “electronica” (which is unusual given that they’re on Warp Records), and there are even some distorted vocal bits thrown in near the end of the song, just to thicken the atmosphere. Some days I wonder if “atmosphere” is all their really is to this song, but then I realize how precise the balance of subtle ingredients is, and I have to love it for walking that tightrope so well.
8. About Face
Following up the previous standout track with another that possesses almost the exact same rhythm and tempo, without the rhythmic groove or soaring climax, was honestly a bit of a bad idea. This one feels like an experiment that never quite went anywhere, a simple electric guitar arpeggio with little blurts of woodwinds here and there and some stabs of organ on top of it, as if they were attempting to be the world’s smallest traveling circus. I don’t hate it, but it’s too slight to really make an impression.
9. Hold Still
Speaking of too slight, this song feels so soggy and immaterial that I often forget its there. The short run time might have something to do with it, but beyond the empty, echoing strums of electric guitar (which is played almost as if it’s a harp, if that makes any sense) and Ed’s sparse lyrics, there’s not much for me to grab onto. Some wobbly finger-picking attempts to provide a melodic hook for the band to return to, but they don’t seem to really commit to it before the song vanishes into the clouds.
10. While You Wait For the Others
Now we’re back to “bad@$$” territory. You can tell right from the get-go that the electric guitar’s got attitude, and while it doesn’t quite parallel the wizardry of “Southern Point”, there’s a jazzy swagger here that keeps the rhythm rolling along nicely. The jazz influence, particularly as it applies to the vocals, really reminds of Joe Henry here, which is admittedly an odd comparison, but you have to keep in mind my very limited experience with the genre. But I wouldn’t call this or anything on the album straight-up jazz, because there’s still a bit of a “dirty” approach to it that reminds us we’re dealing with indie rock here, and there’s still not quite as much energy here as there was in the first two tracks or the climax of “Fine For Now”. Still, this would be the other single-worthy track on the album, and while I’m not over the moon about it the way many of the critics are, I enjoy it a good deal. The lyrics, which chide a person for expecting other folks to tell them how to think and feel, are a good fit for the sassy musical approach, which brings a bit more of the “Grizzly” than most of the band’s music.
11. I Live with You
I really wanted to like this one, from its fantasy-land intro of flutes and strings to its little soulful moments where a horn section swells up nowhere, seemingly leading into something big. And I suppose it is something big that we get when it’s all said and done, but it’s big in the hulking, lumbering sense, and at several points it dissipates into a still sense of disconnected nothingness. I’m sure this is supposed to be epic, the penultimate track leading purposefully toward an emotional climax and the eventual comedown of the final song. But I need a bit more than the nervous strumming of the same faint guitar chord (which this song does during its faint echo of a verse) or the insistent stomping on that same chord (which is where the chorus comes in) until the band decides to switch to another one, seemingly arbitrarily. The math is just off in this song – the chords don’t change where you expect them to and they don’t resolve to anything that sounds like it’s worth all of the noisy hoopla (and good Lord, did they scribble all over this one with electronic whatsits and half of an orchestra and by bringing back that youth choir for good measure!). I’m sure confounding our expectations is part of the “art”, but to me it feels subtle as a sledgehammer. There might be several tracks on this album that don’t hit me as hard as they could, or that bug me due to being too slight, but this is the only one that actively irritates me. I’m glad when it abruptly resolves into the tranquil stillness of the final track.
I know this final, solemn piano ballad is going to be an emotional connecting point for many, so I’ll try to tread carefully here and say that Veckatimest ends on a pretty note, but not necessarily a strikingly beautiful one. Rossen’s vocals are nothing short of delicious here, even if I can’t work out what’s dredged up his regretful tone (the lyrics are among the album’s most baffling and seemingly non-sequitur). The way those high notes ring out – not loud enough to sound like he’s showing off, but held just right to highlight the fragility in his voice – is the most lovely aspect of the song. And the band honestly sounds good when stripped down to this level of simplicity. I just wish they’d done more with it – not necessarily a huge, euphoric climax since that was what the previous track was probably meant to be – but something that would extend the runtime and make it a tad more noticeable. I see the promise of this one beginning to emerge as the Brooklyn Youth Chorus is slowly faded into the mix one final time, but after ten or twenty seconds of them holding a single chord, the song ends, just when you were expecting something fascinating to take place.
Despite my frustrations with the band’s habit of retreating into subtleties and afterthoughts, I will say that Veckatimest has held up better to a closer examination than I expected it to. Songs that I once thought were just one thing, genre-wise, have started to reveal the bits and pieces of different influences that make Grizzly Bear’s style unique, and that make no two of their songs a retread of one another. This isn’t a group that hits on a winning formula and keeps cranking out the same thing. That might be a bit disappointing when they come up with heavy-hitters like the two songs that opened the album, but it’s that restless need to reinvent their sound with seemingly each new song that will likely keep their music intriguing for me longer than some meat-and-potatoes rock records are likely to.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Southern Point $2
Two Weeks $2
All We Ask $1
Fine For Now $1.50
Ready, Able $1.50
About Face $.50
Hold Still $0
While You Wait For the Others $1.50
I Live with You $0
Daniel Rossen: Vocals, guitar, keyboards
Ed Droste: Vocals, guitar, keyboards
Chris Taylor: Bass, backing vocals, various instruments
Christopher Bear: Drums, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.