Yellow House Turns 10
Just about 10 years ago, a shift occurred in the New York City music scene. In the early ’00s, there was the city’s retro-rock revival, with the Strokes and Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, alongside countless other groups, reviving a gritty, Lower East Side cool in Manhattan, tapping into the history of a much grimier ’70s New York. By the end of the same decade, many of those bands had flickered creatively or commercially, and any notion of Manhattan as the primary incubator of New York’s rock scene came off as antiquated and illegible while Williamsburg secured its prominence as the epicenter of late-’00s indie, and as a mainstream signifier for a slice of youth culture many reduced to (and ridiculed as) “hipsterdom.”
In reality: sure, Williamsburg was increasingly vibrant at the same time that the LES was still burning bright, and some of those rock-revival bands lived in Brooklyn just as some of the Brooklyn indie era’s luminaries actually lived all over. But especially for those of us outside the city during most of those years, it was a matter of perception, and the narrative had changed. Some of the big names from the latter half of the decade were active—even successful and acclaimed—while the prior movement was still going strong, yet it took a different ethos and tone as the decade went on for these artists to really hit their stride. The Strokes and Interpol suggested a lost and mythic New York, and as the trends surrounding them faded, groups like TV On The Radio, LCD Soundsystem, the National, St. Vincent, and Vampire Weekend found greater success, and represented a new version of NYC and its rock music. Another one of those bands was Grizzly Bear. And the LP that really marked their birth, Yellow House, turns 10 today.
If there’s a dividing line between the two rock movements that dominated New York in the first half of this century, it would either be the release of LCD Soundsystem’s debut — the opening salvo of new kings arriving, making good on the promise of “Losing My Edge” three years prior—or the Strokes’ First Impressions Of Earth, their bloated end-of-the-party third album, the one that proved the movement’s poster-children were mortal, fallible.
Aside from LCD, one distinguishing factor of the incoming class was that they were less ostensibly “New York”-ish than their predecessors, less steeped in the history and iconography of Blondie and the Velvet Underground and CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. Even within that, though, you could see how they were New York artists. TV On The Radio’s Dear Science is the sound of dancing in the streets as the world’s burning down, the dark party album from the group that always seemed able to capture the atmosphere of post-9/11 America best. St. Vincent eventually betrayed her debt to Talking Heads and David Bowie, establishing herself in a lineage of city-dwelling, art-rock visionaries. The National, though originally hailing from Ohio, crafted urbane music that often dealt with an at-odds relationship between your sense of home in New York, or your sense of distance from where you came from before. Aside from their Columbia bookishness and Modern Vampires Of The City, Vampire Weekend were always a New York band of a certain type anyway: providing the chirpy soundtrack for a wave of college kid gentrifiers hitting North Brooklyn and setting the stage for Girls, “A-Punk” an Alvin And The Chipmunks rendition of the post-punk rhythms all the New York bands had mined so mercilessly over the preceding years.
Yet Grizzly Bear were the major outlier even in an era where NYC’s rock music was taking so many different directions at once. Far from suggesting any hard or frenetic New York stereotype, they were downright pastoral. They played psych-laced folk-indie built in off-kilter arrangements that could shudder as if stumbling through a dark countryside, or burst open into rolling harmonies built for the moment where you come around the bend and find yourself in sprawling vistas with the mountains on the horizon. They could teeter into baroque preciousness, but when it worked it felt as if they were harnessing some majestic mystery hidden out in America, and they siphoned the enigma through the smallness of voices dwarfed by endless landscapes, rather than with the energy of raging against the noise of city streets. Nothing about it said Manhattan, little about it said Brooklyn. Fittingly, Yellow House was named for Ed Droste’s mother’s home in Cape Cod. They might’ve been a New York band, but they gestured at a rambling that identified them only as an American band.
Prior to Yellow House, Grizzly Bear was Droste’s solo project, though his debut Horn Of Plenty also featured contributions from Christopher Bear, who later became Grizzly Bear’s official drummer. Bassist Chris Taylor and the group’s other singer-guitarist, Daniel Rossen, came onboard as Droste put together a live setup, and that’s where the Grizzly Bear we actually know really came into focus. Horn Of Plenty was Droste’s small-scale, lo-fi experiments. Yellow House still ambled, but was the lush debut of a full band that had just found a new home at Warp Records. While bigger breakthroughs were still yet to come, it upped their visibility significantly: they became critically-adored indie darlings, and their notoriety even spread to decidedly unhip locales like my hometown in Pennsylvania. I was working in a guitar shop at the time, and my boss/guitar teacher loved Yellow House and the subsequent Friend EP. They were in the CD player (!) all the time. Unlike an artist like LCD Soundsystem, there was no sense of this artist calling you to the city, hinting at that place down the highway. Grizzly Bear sounded rural, Druidic, like a bunch of guys making weird music somewhere even more distant than where I was.
Like it was for me, Yellow House was the introduction of Grizzly Bear for many people, and it garnered them a lot of fervent fans. One of them, famously, was Johnny Greenwood, who announced that Grizzly Bear were his favorite band while they served as openers on Radiohead’s 2008 tour for In Rainbows. While it’s easy to forget these days, after the scourge of anthemic festival-folk courtesy of Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers, Grizzly Bear’s skewed folk elements were unique compared to much of what they were surrounded by in their scene. And the experimentation Greenwood appreciated ensured there was something enduring about Yellow House: it was the kind of music that at once felt archaic and foreign, but also new and surreally familiar due to its vague intimacy.
As a result, there are those Grizzly Bear devotees who still rank Yellow House as their best album, or at the very least return to several of these songs as examples of their finest work. Of course, you have “Knife,” a woozily pulsing track that passed as the more direct, pop-oriented track on the album. It establishes an archetype within Grizzly Bear’s sound, gently chugging guitars and small undulations splitting open into huge, layered harmonies. “Plans” starts as ruminations punctuated by whistles, and grows into a kind of day-drunk lope as the instrumentation builds and the song swings into a sea-sick back-and-forth. But perhaps the peak of the album is “On A Neck, On A Spit,” a multi-part track that showcases Grizzly Bear’s skill at building their songs into somewhat hazily-defined suites. It has their bucolic drift, it has vocal lines—“Each day, spend it with me now”—that are sad and haunting and pretty simultaneously. It has tumbling percussion that stops-starts its way into a furious railroad march that carries the track to its eventual conclusion. There were legions of indie bands who made lesser versions of this song over the years. But there was something special in the alchemy behind Grizzly Bear’s version, and it’s still powerful today.
Yellow House remains one of the more notable indie releases of last decade, and one of the New York albums to signal a changing of the guard. Yet it was Veckatimest, released three years later, that truly catapulted this weird, lop-sided band to the forefront of the indie groups that flirted with the real mainstream. It had “Two Weeks,” Grizzly Bear’s car-commercial song, the one everyone knows. It’s the album that debuted in the top 10 of Billboard’s Top 200. Jay Z and Beyoncé danced to “Ready, Able.” Grizzly Bear don’t exactly have a sparse catalog for a project that’s existed since 2002, but it’s also not over-crowded. Amongst the four LPs released under the moniker thus far, it’s far more likely people would call Veckatimest the masterwork, the one that’ll rank highly in Albums Of The Decade-type surveys about the ’00s.
While the group’s songwriting sharpened and they found a more muscular, big-screen sound on Veckatimest and Shields, there is still something idiosyncratic about Yellow House as an album on its own, but also within this career arc. It suggested big scenes and big stories, but conveyed them with the hushed meandering of late-night fireside monologues. The band’s following two records actually captured the bigness, and as a result they became one of the more unexpected additions to indie’s upper-tier as the ’00s waned. Perhaps because an album like Veckatimest helped define the times, it also feels irrevocably of its time. And there’s something left with Yellow House that allows it to stand outside of that kind of thing, that allows you to still develop your own relationship and meaning with it as a listener. Maybe its the inherent opacity of its sound and identity. That’s a quality that outstrips even the moments where it does feel irrevocably of its time—the off-handedly chosen animal moniker, the baroqueness, the Beach Boys melodies. But it still boasts a sound that was outside of its movement, outside of movements in general. It’s one of those more timeless works, the ones that years down the line may linger and appear as if they could’ve come from any handful of eras at once.