Grizzly Bear’s latest is relatively spacious, but the band built its reputation on near-orchestral grandeur
Most of the time, a band isn’t a democracy—it’s a dictatorship. That’s how Grizzly Bear started out, first as the solo project of Brooklyn’s Ed Droste, then as a quartet rounded up to play shows after the release of 2004’s Horn of Plenty. Somewhere out on the road, though, Grizzly Bear became a band in the best sense, with each of the new members—guitarist Dan Rossen, bassist-engineer Chris Taylor, and drummer Chris Bear—contributing not just an instrument, but a vital collaborative energy.
Yellow House, the 2006 follow-up to Horn of Plenty, sounded like the work of four neurotic young men trying to impress each other. The album’s tracks may have started off as hushed solo demo recordings put forward by Droste and Rossen, but with their dense instrumental layering and vocal multitracking, the final versions seemed like they were on the verge of exploding, as if the New Yorkers had dared themselves to see how many good ideas they could fit into each one.
It’s a mark of just how confident and close Grizzly Bear has become that this year’s Veckatimest seems so free and spacious. Where everything on Yellow House sounded as big and luxurious as possible, Veckatimest achieves its grandeur with silence and emphasis, the New Yorkers spreading out to every corner of the dynamic field, growing tighter the further away from each other they’re arranged. Reached at his Brooklyn apartment, Bear says that while this may be the band’s third album, it almost feels like a debut.
“We tried to keep things fresh and focused and tried to capture what we sound like as a live unit. There were a lot of moments where we were thinking we could add something, but then it was like, ”˜What is that part really going to do? What are we trying to create with that? We could stack a lot of vocal harmonies here, but maybe there’s more of an impact if we strip them out.’ There’s still a lot of arranging and layering going on, but we were definitely more judicious with how we presented our ideas.”
The better Grizzly Bear sounds, the easier it is to identify each member’s particular strengths. It’s not quite fair to call Droste and Rossen the band’s Lennon and McCartney; really, each of the bandmates draws influence from both of the Beatles legends. Rossen shares some of Paul’s elegant musicality and John’s acid tongue, while Droste is unabashedly tuneful like McCartney and instinctive like Lennon, at his best when his mates are fleshing out his sweet melodic sketches.
Droste and Rossen’s approaches are vividly contrasted in Veckatimest’s first two songs. “Southern Point”, the opener, plays like an overture, setting out the refined textures and soaring harmonies that recur throughout the album. This is a quintessential Rossen tune, its unpredictable chord changes and subdued jazz swing laying the groundwork for a galloping psych-pop explosion that recalls the sun-kissed ’60s-era Los Angeles rockers Love. With its dulcet vocal harmonies and sky-high drum ricochets, meanwhile, Droste’s “Two Weeks” could have been a doo-wop hit in the 1950s, except that Bear keeps conjuring all kinds of rhythmic hiccups to keep the background moving.
Bear and bassist Taylor are refugees from Manhattan’s jazz scene, each seeming to favour precision, not flashiness, in his instrumental approach. Bear, in particular, is a model of grace and economy, a nimble boxer animating Veckatimest’s best songs with his stick-and-move technique.
On “Cheerleader”, he initially sets the dials to simmer, his bop-jazz backbeat fleshed out with delicate rim-and-ride accents. The main body of the song eventually gives way to a four-part choral outro, the band members’ voices soaring heavenward but never quite breaking free of Bear’s tribal pulse. Elsewhere, the skinsman takes great pleasure in bashing the hell out of his kit, as he does on “While You Wait for the Others”, a cavernous foot-stomper that belies Grizzly Bear’s reputation for precious solemnity.
“It was fun to have this contrast where some songs are really loud and others are hushed and we’ve miked the drums super-close,” says Bear. “With Yellow House, it felt more orchestral because it was me creating rhythms by piecing together various percussion parts during the editing process. With this one, we were trying to keep some of that same sensitivity and some of those nontraditional beat structures, but to do it with a regular setup.”
Here, the drummer hits on the central reason for Veckatimest’s brilliance. Where on Yellow House the players recorded a bunch of stuff and pieced together the definitive versions in the editing suite, on this album they reworked the parts before recording much of anything. In finished form, then, the songs retain the familiarity of a jazz standard and the vitality of a first-take demo. Theirs is a long, painstaking process, admits Bear, but he professes no interest in changing course by, say, hiring an outside producer.
“Because everyone in the band has such strong ideas, giving a producer the power to make snap judgments might actually complicate things,” he explains. “No single person has that kind of authority within the group. When we’re in the studio, our songs are constantly changing, and everyone has a different idea of what path each one’s going to go down. If there was just a singular idea from the beginning and nothing else was explored, I don’t think we’d have as interesting a record to show for it.”
Part of the interest in listening to Veckatimest is trying to parse what Droste and Rossen’s elliptical lyrics are all about. For the most part, the poetry’s too spare to pin down. But when, on “All We Ask”, Rossen sings, “I can’t get out of what I’m into with you,” he might be talking to his bandmates, telling them there’s no end in sight to the tangled trip they’re on. Hope he’s right.
Grizzly Bear plays the Commodore Ballroom on Tuesday (May 26).