Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest

I feel a need to tread carefully with this one. Music reviews, especially on blogs very often only come in one gear: full-throttle, 5 star, album-of-the-millennium, life-changing, bar-raising hyperbole. I'm as guilty of that as anyone, with enthusiasm shown for Fleet Foxes and Animal Collective coming back to bite me slightly. Grizzly Bear have sneaked up on me from nowhere after a recommendation from James Dalrymple and their name has been mentioned in the same breath as the bands above, partly because their music could be said to inhabit a space between them (Not as folky as the Foxes nor as out there as the Animal's) but mainly because they have all been caught up in the religious fervour of the on-line music reviewing biz.

So with that caveat let me get going with my praise for this quite brilliant album. Grizzly Bear's last, Yellow House, was filled with lots of interesting stuff, an album that created a real atmosphere and rewarded a listening from beginning to end. This follow-up contains far more stand alone tracks, which I'm sure will prove to be far more radio-friendly and lead to much better exposure for the band, whilst some live performances on Later and Letterman won't have hurt either. Two Weeks and While You Wait For The Others, the tracks they performed on Later, are both standouts. The former is a wonderful sunny track punctuated by plonky piano chords which aren't a million miles away from It's A Hard Knock Life from the musical Annie, emphatic organ and bass and a melody which makes it an obvious first single. I defy you not to tap your feet as it begins or nod your head as the organ arpeggios carry the chorus. The latter is far more complex, its lyrics carrying a cruel edge, ('You could beg for forgiveness/As long as you like/Or just wait out the evening/You'll only leave me dry...So I'll ask you kindly to make your way'), the sound of the guitars making it sound like a track from another era but their combination with the vocals and the structure of the song mean it sounds very much of today.

The album's opener Southern Point is typical of the band, managing to start off sounding like one kind of track before carnival drums take it somewhere else, then stripping back and building up layers of sound again, showcasing some of the different styles they are capable of, not really following a verse/chorus structure, not to mention a couple of false endings. It's also an example of their confidence, which manifests itself not so much in being audacious but by sounding completely in control of their music, making music which is uniquely theirs. At times on this album they seem to have the kind of confidence The Beatles must have had at the height of their powers. The beautiful vocals are evident on All We Ask with its haunting closing refrain of 'I can't get out of what I'm into with you' and Fine For Now shows that whilst they may be compared to Fleet Foxes they are capable of making music which contains more variety and lyrics which cut to the quick, 'If it’s all or nothing, then let me go'.

That said, there are moments which don't work so well. Ready, Able and About Face are more like the atmospheric but aimless tracks from Yellow House which some will love but after the strength of what has come before (and will come after) they lack grounding. Perhaps these are the kind of tracks that will reward repeated listening. Where that eclectic musicality can work is on a track like I Live With You which seems to contain more narrative than the simple lyrics alone. Many tracks on the album seem to deal with relationships under threat, at that point at which they collapse or survive. Here the music is almost theatrically descriptive and the threat is more like that of attack, 'They'll try, they'll try, they'll try/To keep us apart...You brought us this far/We'll do what we can'. (This may also be one of the few albums to take a fish like the humble dory and spin out a track which is both experimental and oddly touching.)

There is a quality that both albums have in common which is difficult to name, something hard to grasp. I don't want to use a word like dreamy, although that's exactly what a track like Cheerleader is ('I'm cheerleading myself/I should've made it matter'). It certainly isn't light, one critic has already accused the album of being 'demanding', but it is otherwordly. Like the best bands Grizzly Bear are quickly developing something which is theirs alone and the real coup of this album may be to have found a way to get that sound across in a far more palatable form than previously but without concession. As both Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen sing on Hold Still, 'I'll take one chance/Without compromise'. This might be the only chance they need to provide 2009 with one of its best albums.

Those 'Later...' live performances can be seen here.


John Self 26 May 2009 at 09:32  

Sold! I see one Amazon reviewer says that Veckatimest got a four star review in Uncut. That's worrying: last time I looked at Uncut (which is a few years ago admittedly) they were still sprinkling five-star reviews around like fertiliser, rendering a four-star rating positively negative by comparison.

William Rycroft 26 May 2009 at 10:25  

The Times only gave it 3 stars on Sunday, 'demanding' being the answer to the enquiry into the 'word for an album that you know is excellent, but that you really don’t want to listen to?'

It isn't that demanding.

bobblog 26 May 2009 at 19:24  

Veckatimest is a classic. If you're a fan of pet sounds era beach boys, Van Dyke Parks, Neil Young (and I hear Love in them too) then this album is for you.

If this album was a woman then I'd marry her

William Rycroft 26 May 2009 at 20:51  

Sit on the fence, why don't you, Robert!

Anonymous,  28 May 2009 at 10:17  

I'll be getting this soon I think. I've heard a lot of good things.

If it bears comparison with both Fleet Foxes and Animal Collective it must be pretty remarkable.

>>'word for an album that you know is excellent, but that you really don’t want to listen to?'<<

I saw that Sunday Times review.

If you know an album is excellent but don't want to listen to it, (1) give it more than 3/5 and (2) quit your job as a music critic!

William Rycroft 28 May 2009 at 12:28  

Please come back with your thoughts once you've had a listen Jonathan, I'd love to know what you think.

As for that review, I wish I got paid to write lazy twaddle like that.

John Self 28 May 2009 at 13:49  

Bought the album in town this morning and listened to the first three tracks in the car on the way back to the office. So far so good. And would I be laughed out of town for drawing a minor comparison to Spilt Milk-era Jellyfish? That sense of sweetness without being saccharine. Further bulletins as events warrant.

William Rycroft 28 May 2009 at 19:24  

Ah, now a friend once burnt me some Jellyfish and I put it on once, thought 'that's not for me thanks' and put it away somewhere. I wonder if I can find it...

bobblog 28 May 2009 at 20:01  

As for that review, I wish I got paid to write lazy twaddle like that.

Nah you'd feel dead guilty.

It does make me angry though - when I was a music critic I used to spend hours trying to construct a great review. Then you read this.

James Dalrymple 28 May 2009 at 21:52  

I'm well behind on all this. I finally got around to listening to this today. I've become a bit of a grumpy old man - refusing to stream albums until their release unless I can get hold of a review copy. First impressions are that it's quite similar to GB affiliates Department of Eagles' In Ear Park. Not always an easy listen but with those great pop tracks interspersed that lighten the load. Will post shortly. Overwhelmed these days with the new addition to the family and other writing commitments..

John Self 29 May 2009 at 23:14  

I have to say that so far, Veckatimest seems an easy enough listen to me, in that I don't have a natural musical ear (it takes me longer to get into new music than it seems to take others, like my wife) but it seems pretty seductive first or second time out. More so than Animal Collective, say, which I still put on every now again wondering if I'll love it yet (the answer so far has always been No. It's just too murky in the production for me).

That review really is a disgrace, isn't it?

Will, Spilt Milk was one of my favourite albums of 1993 when it came out (another being Stephen Duffy's sublime Music in Colors - get this album if you don't already). Jellyfish hasn't worn quite as well as the Duff, and it sounds even more vastly overproduced in places than it did at the time, but there's a real songwriting talent in there which usually survives over the oompah brass and the cutesy sound effects. Their first - other - album Bellybutton is more straightforward poppy, with lots of 2m30s songs inc 'Baby's Coming Back' which was ripped asunder by McFly recently (a amateur, and probably better, version here). Here's a not-bad cover of another of theirs, 'Now She Knows She's Wrong' ('a walking monument to DNA / making love under the podium at the PTA'). Actual Jellyfish on YouTube is mostly crap quality live versions, alas.

William Rycroft 31 May 2009 at 13:02  

James, I'm pleased you had time enought to pop by and comment, I hope all is going well with you and family and I can't wait to hear your thoughts on Veckatimest.

John, thanks for those links. Baby's Coming Back sounds very familiar (and I particularly like the guy singing backing vocals on that video - he hasn't quite got it has he.) I have never quite got Stephen Duffy but I will take your bold type as a serious bit of arm-twisting.

Anonymous,  10 June 2009 at 13:33  

It's lovely isn't it? It's the second really extraordinary album I've heard this year, after Merriweather Post Pavilion.

I'm surprised at how polished the whole thing is -- the band hasn't just recorded a set of great songs, they've gone and recorded them immaculately.

"Two Weeks" and "While You Wait" sound like the work of a band totally of one mind, confident and harmonious, focused on making already brilliant songs sound as beautiful as possible. In that respect, the album reminds me of In Rainbows.

William Rycroft 10 June 2009 at 13:41  

I so nearly mentioned Radiohead in the review Jonathan and for precisely the reason you mention. Spot on!

bobblog 10 June 2009 at 13:54  

Have you checked out Dirty Projectors' Bitte Orca? I think it rounds out this trio of american alt quite nicely

William Rycroft 10 June 2009 at 14:01  

I haven't yet but what with James's review and your comments I think I may have to.

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