I was playing a new record the other day that was, to all intensive purposes, mediocre American indie-rock; maybe with a touch of mediocre American post-rock. Uneventful enough, you might imagine, except for the fact that a constant barrage of overcomplicated arrangements – shooting for some kind of avant-garde audacity, I guess – made it actively annoying rather than merely nondescript.
I can imagine, though, that this album will get a fair bit of praise, because it embodies a certain kind of Over-Reaching Maximalist Indie, and there’s a current tendency to praise records in part because of what are perceived as ‘ambitious’ arrangements, though not necessarily – to my ears, at least – good ones. A case in point being last year’s Bon Iver record, and perhaps most glaringly, the moment when Sufjan Stevens – previously a superbly measured arranger, I’d say – jumped the shark on “The Age Of Adz”.
I mention all this today to set a context for the excellence of Daniel Rossen, his work with Grizzly Bear and Department Of Eagles, and his terrific new “Silent Hour/Golden Mile” EP (Warp are hosting one of the stand-out tracks, “Silent Song”, here). Apologies for doing what I normally deplore – ie spending most of a supposedly positive review griping about tangential other music. Nevertheless, it does feel like the grace and economy of the way Rossen goes about constructing chamber-pop deserves to be judged against those who use flashier, fussier and much less effective techniques as an attempted shortcut to grandeur.
Rossen’s five solo songs collected here aren’t demonstrably that different to what he’s been doing for the past few years with Grizzly Bear and Department Of Eagles. There’s that same buccaneering air to the way his melodies and instruments are buffeted on the breeze, a sort of genteel swagger. Basically, “Silent Hour/Golden Mile” keeps working diligently on an idea of chamber pop learned originally from The Beatles, with especial attention paid to Paul McCartney (though check out the Harrison slide on “Silent Song” and “Golden Mile”), refracted through stuff like Elliott Smith’s “XO”.
Rossen shares Smith’s craftsmanship, airy diffidence and sense of saturated romance. What’s missing – and this is not necessarily a criticism – is the usual visceral shorthand of that strain of singer-songwriters. Rossen’s music seems dreamy and abstracted rather than confessional, though at the same time very precise, measured and restrained in its construction. “Return To Form” might emerge from a thicket of fingerpicking comparable with some of Kurt Vile’s workouts, but while Vile cultivates an air of spontaneity, you’re never in doubt that Rossen knows exactly where he’s going. In his measure, control and calm intelligence, you can understand why Paul Simon sees a kindred spirit. Very nice record.