Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest

By Amrit Singh / March 5, 2009

No secret we’ve been excited about this one for awhile. And as the band blogged, it’s no secret that a transcode of the album is burning up torrent sites a bit earlier than anticipated. On the other hand, between live shows and television appearances, the wait for a Yellow House followup’s seemed interminable, Grizzly Bear’s pre-release maneuvering and gradual song reveals setting expectations impossibly high. “Two Weeks” and “While You Wait For The Others” suggested a marked turn to sun-dappled pop; every song we heard thereafter fucked with those expectations while giving them dimension. Before this week we’d heard enough to know it’d be pretty great. After a few spins of Veckatimest, we’ve heard enough to know this is the band’s best album to date, and that people won’t talk about them the same way after hearing it. Put simply: The new Grizzly Bear is a beast.

With sounds so rich and detailed, lyrics aren’t the first thing you think of when listening to Grizzly Bear, although there does seem to be a theme running through most of Veckatimest. At its heart, it’s an album about the space and place between loved ones, which the band alludes to quite literally: “In the end you’ll never find … Will I return to you, will you return to me” (on the opening “Southern Point”); “I told you I would stay” (“Two Weeks”); “I can’t get out of what I’m into with you” (“All We Ask”); “If it’s all or nothing, then let me go” (“Fine For Now”); “They’ll try to keep us apart” (“I Live With You”); and on. Relationships make an about face, they hold still, they linger in the foreground. So it makes some sense that the album’s titled after a place-out-of-time unto itself, while possessing a syllabic string that conjures something of the album’s sound: mood-spanning, fantastical, and otherworldly.

That said, the set does contain the unabashedly straightforward pop cuts in “Two Weeks” and “While You Wait For The Others.” Not much needs to be said about those considering the amount of hypertext that’s been served in their honor already, but it’s worth noting that the studio was good to both. Grizzly’s previous foray into the realm of the “pop jam,” “Knife,” was appended with a minute-and-a-half of surreal vamping; this time the band kept their insta-pleasers clean, vibrant, and succinct. If radios were still a thing that existed, they totally wouldn’t need to make radio edits. (Also, Beach House’s Victoria LeGrand on “Two Weeks” is a nice touch.)

On first hearing “Fine For Now” we realized the band was working on some knottier pieces to accompany the previously discussed cuts’ sunny poptimism, and indeed the remaining ten tracks defy any such easy characterization, incorporating elements of Yellow House‘s avant folk and compositional complexities and taking them to new realms. “Southern Point” opens and announces the revamp of the Yellow House template with its acoustic guitars, pianos, and runaway drums matched to snatches of scene-coloring strings and billowing into a pretty/anxious wah-wah blizzard. Moments like these pop up throughout, but the approach is more dynamic and song-oriented than before.

In a Progress Report, Ed said “With past releases there have been small regrets of how we would have preferred things and I think this time we are just covering all the bases and making sure every member of the band has exhausted all the ideas and concepts they’ve wanted to explore.” That attention to detail and conceptual exploration is evident in every minute of Veckatimest, from the subtle interplay between Nico Muhly’s tasteful string quartet arrangements and Chris Taylor’s equally experimental production ticks (check the delirious climax of “I Live With You”), to the group’s instrumental and four-part vocal arrangements throughout.

The band’s shown interest in older sounds before, notably with their covers of the 1962 Crystals cut “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)” and “Marla,” a 1930s song by Droste’s great-great-aunt, and both eras get work here: “Cheerleader” builds on nostalgic melodies and a lockstep groove in the vein of their “He Hit Me” arrangement, while the stunning “Ready, Able” is an intermittently psychedelic, rousing and grooving pull on victrola-era pop. Picking standouts is tough when its clear songs like “Dory” and “I Live With You” are as much meant to be slow-bloomers as character builders, but immediate standouts abound: in addition to those mentioned (“Cheerleader,” “Fine For Now,” “Two Weeks,” “Ready, Able,” “While You Wait,”), tack on the delicate and chiming “About Face” and the fragile, set-closing torch song “Foreground,” a perfect ending to an intimate yet expansive, sprawling pop album.

Grizzly Bear remain a band as interested in exploring traditional and contemporary American music forms as they are subverting them. Most of the talk around this record will center on its status as an of-the-year contender, and rightly so. But more importantly, we have a work from a band continuously defying expectations, pushing back boundaries and chipping into well worn tropes to find something new. For Grizzly Bear Veckatimest is a game changer, and a cause for celebration.

Veckatimest is out 5/26 via Warp. Preorder on the Grizzly blog. It’s big with the kids.