By pulling all four of their heads together in the conception process and tweaking the nuts and bolts of their design in the three years following Yellow House, Brooklyn's Grizzly Bear have produced their finest record to date.
In the three years following Grizzly Bear's full-band debut, Yellow House, Edward Droste and company didn't exactly take great pains to keep the details of their new record a secret. And we, the indie faithful, paid very close attention. We read Stereogum and Pitchfork, lingered on Droste's modest eloquence when he granted interviews to a smattering of publications. We learned that the record was conceived and written at the famous Glen Tonche estate in upstate New York, recorded at Droste's grandmother's home off Cape Cod, and completed in a church in New York City. We learned that the songs were written by all four members -- Droste (guitar), Daniel Rossen (guitar), Christopher Bear (drums) and Chris Taylor (bass/woodwinds/electronics) -- instead of Droste and Rossen only. We learned that Nico Muhly would provide string arrangements on several tracks, and that Beach House's Victoria Legrand would sing on one ("Two Weeks"). We breathed a sigh of relief when "Cheerleader", an album track released earlier in the year, didn't let us down. Some of us even managed to hear an awful quality rip of the record months prior to its release, although this was certainly not the band's intention. It's almost as if Veckatimest came, saw, conquered and peaced out before stores even began to sell it.
And yet, few of us could have expected something as flat-out wonderful as this. Veckatimest doesn't call attention to itself and seems humbled in the manner of groups with far fewer personnel who play at a far lower volume. But at this point in history we'd be idiots to think that modesty can keep brilliant songwriters from vaulting to the head of the class, and Grizzly Bear have quietly produced a standout, both in their own catalogue and in 2009. They've done it, presumably, by taking their months in abeyance to focus on what's worked for them and what has not, and then tweaking the nuts and bolts of their design accordingly. We often wish for our cherished bands to grow and develop between releases (having our cake), but we also want them to retain their essence and a sense of their own identity in the metamorphosis (eating it, too). Grizzly Bear answer our call by resisting any urges to record Yellow Duplex as they resurface with a fully formed work of art only they could have engendered.
It's somewhat ironic that on the group's most refined record, the one thing that hasn't changed is Yellow House's iffiest element. That would be the sound quality, whose musty, shopworn timbre had several otherwise laudatory critics (e.g., Mark Richardson) straddling the fence. I can see where they're coming from. If the willfully low fidelity lent Yellow House the air of a time capsule, unearthed and played on the Victrola for the first time in decades, it also failed to flatter the instrumentation and complex melodies winding through the disc. I'd go a step further and say that it aided the process of weighing down the hooks, many of which were quite heavy anyway. But Veckatimest is a much more aerated and chromatically varied record by nature, and the levity gives the band's prototypical sound an entirely new definition. In this context, it's no longer rough and grizzled but shimmering and bright, fluttering with the most subdued of vibrations. The sound may have deadened Yellow House a bit, but it causes Veckatimest to feel utterly alive, all of the time.
Whether it was planned from the beginning or just a serendipitous coincidence, I can't think of a better time for Warp to release Veckatimest than on the cusp between spring and summer, when things often go from good to excellent and people's sense of their own aliveness peaks. The trio of leadoff tracks references travel and beating inertia, lyrically and musically. Over dusty, rolling acoustic guitars and a rhythmic cadence that reminds me of a horse's quick trot, Rossen sings the album's first words in an auspicious tone: "Our haven on the southern point is calling us / And faced with all the obvious, so carry us." In the thunderous chorus, it appears he's already made it there: "You'll never find me now." We believe him because the song he's offered us -- a five-minute pop number with propulsive momentum and an aura of optimism -- makes it difficult to find his old band anywhere inside of it. "Two Weeks" springs out into daylight like a recuperated kid after two weeks of bed rest, its boogie-woogie piano and vocal exultations of "OH-oh, OH-oh, WHOA-oh!" sporting confidence and resoluteness. What is it they ask for on the third track, "All We Ask"? "Another voice / Lead us on, lead us on."
There's a clear desire for new energy here, and they've found it, in part, by pulling all four heads together during conception and welcoming the panoply of ideas that came forth. As a result, Veckatimest is an embarrassment of riches. Scores of countermelodies are assimilated into the overall tableaus, enhancing their musicality without distracting from their main ideas. (Credit the sound quality for this, too; its fuzzy texture blurs the lines between individual instruments and leaves a singular entity in their place.) The technique works as well on a grabber like "Two Weeks" as it does on the less immediate "Cheerleader", which reaches back to a fading glitzy nostalgia with swaying rhythms, American Bandstand guitars, Muhly's wonderfully sappy strings and Droste's falsetto that lingers in the air long after the track ends. "I Live With You" is by turns intimate and effulgent, starting as a crumbly, one-chord strum that unwittingly picks up a choir, a brass section, woodwinds, and as many electronic effects as there are buttons to push on the keyboard. Yet the band sounds just as secure when they aren't filling in the entire canvas, as on the sweet "Hold Still", where Rossen sings over guitar ambience and a memorable plucked riff that float up and disappear into the campfire-lit night sky.
In contrast to Veckatimest's beginning, and indeed to Yellow House, these more hushed songs have a relationship to travel and domesticity that isn't easy to explain. To my ears they have a preoccupation with physical space; as they expand and shrink back, the group seems to be aware of how much room is available to occupy. They don't feel particularly housebound either, but when they take flight they remain connected to the earth and in the realm of the corporeal. On "Dory", the protagonist imagines himself and a companion swimming "like two dories let loose in the bay," though the song appears to exist on the front porch of a summer hideout during the imagination stage, rather than on the water. Yet the air is still fresh, the scenery unique. In this regard, Veckatimest and Beach House's similarly toned Devotion (2008) strike me as two sides of the same coin. The journeys we took on Devotion were too starry and idealistic to be true, as if we dreamed them up from the safety of our bedrooms. Veckatimest moves us around the sylvan American landscape in search of comfortable places to settle down.
Grizzly Bear have always possessed this je ne sais quoi way of making their music sound as old as the animal that shares their namesake. But on this, their finest record, they've joined their contemporaries in Fleet Foxes by casting oldness in a new light. Although it's rooted in contemporary rock, Veckatimest is essentially era-less, inspired less by the specific music of their forebears and more by the wistfulness and sentimentality that enshroud it. As such, the band has succeeded in overturning the common assumption -- held by the youth of this generation, who are the ones most likely to listen to this -- that anything too old is bound to be frumpy and staid. But even more significant is that Veckatimest proves that a record doesn't have to carry so much darn weight to still feel important. The band has swapped out the six-minute epics of Yellow House for a greater number of shorter works, packed with just as many concepts but integrated with more skill and with more respect for the pieces as holistic edifices containing a single incredible idea at each of their centers. In the process, they've written their most instantly memorable songs to date. All bets aren't necessarily off in terms of whether or not Grizzly Bear have hit their plateau -- recall that we did this with Yellow House in 2006; oops -- but it's hard to imagine them giving us more to enjoy in one sweeping statement than they have here.