“Have you heard this yet” a patterned shirt clad wally of a HMV manager parps, catching me off guard as I purchase the latest Grizzly Bear album in my lunch hour.
“No, but I’m a big fan of their previous stuff” I lamely respond.
“They say they’re going to be this year’s Fleet foxes” he replies.
What an earth is this idiot jabbering on about? Are we talking about broad appeal? Mainstream media interest? Sonic characteristics? Melodies and arrangements? Haircuts and cut of trouser? Word of mouth models of, blah blah, blah,blah,blah?
Well, in essence it’s a lazy comparison that illustrates the buzz surrounding Veckatimest in quarters where mention of ‘Yellow House’ would draw lobotomised expressionless chops. The other popular quotable is Johnny Greenwood’s mid-gig utterance that they are indeed his favourite band. Blown out of proportion, or just indicative of the pitchfork effect, where bands reputations can be made by a single well-placed line of endorsement? Whether they succeed to be heard in the current deluge of devalued music and flagging attention spans, often depends on the quality and accessibility of the work. So, has it either?
Veckatimest is Grizzly Bear’s third full album and their second with the current four-piece line up. Its predecessor Yellow House (2006) was an atmospheric timber mansion of an album, coursing with spooky heartache and epic bombast of highest quality. Their latest is equally grand, though there’s much less furniture and the surfaces are well lacquered. As a result it shares more common ground with the band’s side project, Department of Eagles’ ‘In Ear Park’ recorded last year.
Veckatimest’s content falls loosely into two camps, the first exhibits an increased clarity on previous material and a genuinely sophisticated pop sensibility. These tracks are a deft adaptation of a template crafted by gun touting lady menace Phil Spector in the early 60s and traceable back to the band’s masterly cover of the Crystals’ ‘He Hit Me’ on the Friend EP (2007).
These songs update the homicidal genius’ characteristic arrangements and spatial authority to generate a modern elemental pop, infused with the band’s sonic experimentalism and burgeoning refinement. This is evident in a very obvious way on ‘Two weeks’ and ‘Cheerleader’. The latter’s writing is textbook New York prototype girl-group, whilst never veering towards pastiche.
As with Spector’s work from this period, Veckatimest effectively exploits the characteristics of the rooms in which it was recorded. Chris Taylor’s abundant gifts as a producer (and indeed an engineer) play a major role in this. Whether recording in a church in upstate New York or a sitting room in cape cod, he paints each song with immersive spatial dimensions and poetic ambience. A wonderful example is ‘Hold Still’ in which you can hear the room’s log fire crackling all over the tape. The result is a vivid snapshot of dusky grandness, like some marbleised Alan Lomax field recording. He also successfully captures the evocative quality of individual elements throughout, such as the kick on ‘Dory’ which sounds dusty, huge and sparingly moonlit.
The second camp into which songs fall is driven by a heightened live musical interplay. In contrast to the atmospheric explorations of earlier work the band’s confidence and poise as a collective of musicians is now felt as the defining creative force. Changes are increasingly nimble, elements fire and converse across the sonic space, balanced by an explicit fluency of communal expression as songs swell and recede with stunning elegance.
The album apparently took over a year and a half to complete with much of this time spent on the writing and arrangement of vocal parts and the interplay of live musical elements. The finest illustration of this is the album’s opener ‘Southern Point’, a kinetic powerhouse of a track that steadily generates momentum and practically avalanches out of the speakers. Actually the last song to be written and recorded, it captures the collaborative zenith of this development in the Grizzly Bear story. Pausing for breath several times it continually ups the ante, forcing it’s way through stuttering rhythms and choppy gated tambourine, barely resolving until it’s considered final strum.
So, in summary, if instead of talking about Fleet Foxes, our HMV puddle-head had opened up and proclaimed, “They say they are going to be this year’s Phil Spector-ish, dusty full-moon kick drumming-est, log fire heroes of musical interplay”, I may have been late back for work. I guess for those lucky enough to have spent time with Grizzly Bear’s back catalogue there is no need for such trivial dot to dot referees rubbing go faster stripes onto their musical selections. That said, if such boon-ish comparisons lead to the continuation and increased good fortune of genuine artists such as Grizzly Bear, then prattle on.
Written by Shaun Curtis