It could be easy to see Grizzly Bear’s Friend EP on the rack at your favorite record store and dismiss it as a hold-over release. Looking at the track list, full of songs that have appeared on previous releases, along with not one but two bands covering “Knife”, it would seem logical to conclude that this is nothing more than a well-timed filler EP to keep people sated until the next Grizzly Bear full-length. I mean, despite the parentheticals tacked onto the song titles, such as “Alligator (Choir Version)”, can these versions really be that different from their originals?
Well, yes. In fact, if this is a holdover release, it might be the best one in recent memory. The Friend EP shows that Grizzly Bear has gone through some changes since last year’s Yellow House that are just as radical as the changes made when they expanded into a full band after Horn of Plenty. The first four songs on this generous EP were recorded last august in a church, and the change in venue for recording makes these songs sound drastically different from their previous forms.
Yellow House was an album full of the silence and stillness and creaks of its title location, where the album was recorded. Those songs expand in quiet, lonesome ways, down dark halls and into dusty rooms. But the version of “Little Brother” found on the Friend EP seems to be very much aware of its new digs. Recording the song in a church, the band seems to go for a sound that is, well, religion-big. And they succeed. The finger-plucked acoustic guitars, so prevalent on Yellow House, are subbed-out for big, beefy electric guitars full of expansive echo. The drums drive everything forward, and while the song stays restrained much of the time, that restraint doesn’t last. The song builds to an arena-size crescendo. And what makes it so effective is the fact that the pounding drums and churning guitars are still soaked in the band’s beautiful vocal harmonies.
Grizzly Bear are nothing short of a great rock band on these tracks, but their sense of texture and offbeat movement is not lost. The Choir Version of “Alligator” finds the band getting help from Beirut’s Zach Condon and the Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth. The band’s already solid knack for orchestration is made all the stronger by adding these two arrangement gurus, and they manage to blow up the song, originally only a minute-and-a-half vignette on Horn of Plenty, into a big, raucous ebb and flow of orchestral pop. The drums are particularly strong on this track, subdued when they need to be, but capable of surprisingly flashy fills that keep the song’s chunky tension intact. By the time the horns come in at the end of the song, Grizzly Bear has managed to completely change your expectations for the rest of the EP. Gone is any sound you could possibly call precious or gentle, and in its place is a noisy, exciting force to be reckoned with.
The band’s take on the Carole King-penned “He Hit Me” is the best meshing of their quieter Yellow House sound with their new rock band status. The band channels the song’s R & B roots, but also turns them on their ear with dirty, off-kilter guitar riffs to juxtapose Droste’s high register. It acts as a slightly calmer hinge between “Alligator” and “Little Brother” but also stands on its own as one of the more stunning covers to be heard this year.
The second half of the EP is populated mostly by covers. CSS and Atlas Sound both offer solid renditions of the already oft-covered and remixed “Knife”, but Band of Horses’ take on “Plans” is the most interesting cover on Friend. Bridwell and company take the dark folk tune and turn it into an Appalachian sing-along. The banjo-carried instrumentation fades in and out, leaving the spotlight on the band’s spot-on harmonies. It may be lighter fare than Grizzly Bear’s original, but it is not without its own sort of heft.
The Friend EP clocks in at over 43 minutes, and the running time is only half the indication of this discs generous size. Grizzly Bear has expanded their palate here, and proven that they have many tricks still up their sleeve. This is certainly not easily dismissed like most holdover releases, but it builds anticipation for a new record better than any filler disc could hope to.