Experimental-Rock Quartet’s Third Album Is Breakthrough
Headphone albums, almost by definition, demand far greater patience from their resolute listeners than records that can be easily tagged as “hits.” The differences between them can be boiled down to tone and personality.
Typically, the headphone albums aren’t the kind of discs that would survive long at a party. Hits are like extroverts, drawing everyone into their orbit. But, like the audio equivalent of a wallflower, the best of the headphone records have a depth, intelligence and ultimately an understated luster that might not be easily or immediately communicated. Realization of the albums’ full power is often glimpsed during a solitary experience and one that’s spread virally as the secret is shared among like-minded conspirators. These records don’t get or like attention beyond the circle. Otherwise, they’d be hits.
As such, it’s difficult to proclaim the new album by indie-rock band Grizzly Bear as one of the most impressive released so far this year, especially because these songs are so unassuming. The disc’s target audience would seem to be ear-pod aficionados and not broadcast transmitters. No matter, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based foursome has made a startling climb with “Veckatimset.” The record succinctly distills the band’s easy fusion of acoustic-electric stripped-bare melodies with a spirit of experimentalism to form real gems of understated beauty.
Already a mainstay in the New York’s underground-rock community, the group saw its profile spread beyond the Hudson River in the last couple of years thanks to touring stints with Radiohead, Feist, and neighborhood pals TV on the Radio. Suddenly, the band’s latest recoding and touring activities were worth note on music fashionistas’ blogs. “Veckatimset” justifies the buzz surrounding the group and will capitalize on it, easily positioning the band as the next indie act ready to break — at least among the taste-making iPhone set.
All this won’t come to pass without sufficient patience from fans used to instrumental fireworks or sublime hooks with their indie-rock heroes. The laconic style and quieter aura that permeates “Veckatimset” define this record, but also mask its greater aural charms. The record surely doesn’t present itself with the kind of sonic starpower that hipsters heard on TV on the Radio’s “Desperate Youth, Blood-Thirsty Babes” or “Return To Cookie Mountain.” Nor, does the band pose any frontmen as charismatic as TVOTR’s Tunde Adembimpe or Kyp Malone.
What Grizzly Bear does offer along with their fellow Willamsburgians is a common aspiration to meld established genres and traditional rock instrumentation with low-fi acolytes’ healthy disregard for how things should be done. The quartet’s sound could best be compared to the softer, melodic interludes that Thom Yorke and company often insert into their art-rock pastiches. The members of Grizzly Bear stretch these brief episodes out and stack melody and harmony lines so that fans don’t feel like they’re just killing time. Instead, they’re treated to a realm that requires focus to picture the nearly opaque splendor of the vocal interplay, screwy digital effects and a real band trying to play melodies as minimalist as possible.
Audiophiles will need to strain their ears to hear the soft, electric-guitar picking that begins “All We Ask,” which sounds a lot like folkie guitar god Bert Janisch wanted a little volume but changed his mind and set the dial on his amp barely above a whisper. This minute-long intro gently phases into the wall of silence as an acoustic guitar strum and band leader Ed Droste begins crooning with much-York-like sensitivity. The cut is a desperate paen of lost souls. “I can’t get out/Of what I’m into/With you,” he sings, as the delicacies of this tune segue gently into a murmuring, string-laden, street-corner vocal breakdown.
Grizzly Bears’ vocal interplay frequently can be counted on to rescue even the sparsest track. “Fine For Now” strolls along with the quiet ease of a band run through (and featuring Feist-like vocal interjections). Drosete and his bandmates slowly reveal a web of harmonies cascading out, which in turn encourage a noisy guitar riff to peek out before ducking back down to the ether. “About Face,” too, hovers above a barely-there rhythm. Even though the singer reads the mopey lines with the distinctiveness of an early Michael Stipe, his mood is clear and alluring. Clang-y keyboard echoes reverberate as the drummer sounds like he’s playing a ticking time bomb that never goes off.
To be sure, “Two Weeks” is the closet Grizzly Bear tries coming at listeners’ ears front and center. Based off a two-chord piano refrain like if the lads in Vampire Weekend eased off the prep-school pep a little, the song is an undulating melody of New Wave-inspired, almost fey singing from Droste. The other guys pipe in with lovely harmonies, parsed into lovely choral-like vocal arrangements, but don’t keep this song from crossing over into being too ethereal. Some infrequent bass/guitar stings and sharp drum fills snap all this formlessness into order, rendering this track into an easy entre to the group’s lair.
Just as unexpected are the times the Bear wakes from its exquisite state of near-hibernation. Some Link Wray-ish guitar grousing on “While You Wait For The Others” and the fourth-quarter crescendo of “I Live With You” demonstrate the combo does occasionally explore musical dynamics that might wake up the neighbors. Another example is “Southern Point,” whose sturdy strum and peacefulness recall California folk circa the early ’70s, before it’s overtaken by jazzy, fuzz bass lines, psychedelic embellishments and surging string motifs. Discounting the amped-up volume, the group still steers away from overt hooks and keeps its emphasis on slo-mo, audio seduction.
The tentativeness of Grizzly Bear’s songs shouldn’t convince folks that these guys lack ambition. Rather, the totality of “Veckatimset” demonstrates the kind of a confidence and wider perspective that road-broken band might achieve. Yet, instead of being grizzled by the road and becoming louder or more ferociously experimental, the group found a clarity of purpose. This allowed them to emphasize the simple, plaintive interpretation of these songs. They found louder doesn’t necessarily mean richer or better.
“Veckatimset” will not be the blockbuster album of the summer, but has all the attributes to outlast those discs that are flashier. As it is, underground music lovers have another artifact to celebrate the exclusiveness of their high-brow tastes. Play it on your headphones and spread the word.
For More Info:
- Soundbytes Concert Review: TV On The Radio Infuse Art-Rock Creations With Fury
- Grizzly Bear’s Official Web Site
- Grizzly Bear’s MySpace.com Page
- Warp Records’ Official Grizzly Bear Web Site
Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.
©Copyright 2009 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.