According to Daniel Rossen, sat onstage in front of a notably packed Club Uncut, this is only the second ever ‘proper’ gig by Department Of Eagles. The first, it transpires, saw the band expanded to a five-piece, augmented by a couple of the Dirty Projectors and another of Rossen’s bandmates in Grizzly Bear.
This one, though, features just Rossen and his old college room-mate Fred Nicolaus, stripping the crafted chamber folk of their exceptional “In Ear Park” album back down to something rougher, but no less melodically radiant. In the process, a fair bit of Rossen’s McCartneyisms have been lost, but a certain husky intensity has come to the fore, so that when Nicolaus drops out for a song, and he plays “Phantom Other” alone, the directness and engagement is startling.
When “In Ear Park” first turned up, I think I wrote something about it being the next logical record to pick up for those who’d been turned on by Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver in 2008; this new wave of bands whose vision of American musical tradition is romantic and highly aestheticised, drenched in harmonies that give them an eerie transcendence rather than the earthy quasi-realism favoured by so many so-called Americana types.
Department Of Eagles might not have made the impact of those bands thus far – possibly due, in part, to Rossen having been busy finishing up the next Grizzly Bear record. Here, though, there’s even more evidence that his side-project are eminently capable of seizing some of that Fleet Foxes dollar (Robin Pecknold has been vocal in his support of the band, incidentally, not least on this blog).
It’s not just the brittly expansive songs from “In Ear Park” (the opening title track, especially) that are so impressive, nor even the odd song salvaged from their (if memory serves) self-consciously wacky debut: “A Record I don’t want you to know,” says Rossen, candidly enough.
Perhaps a bigger hint of their potential comes with a couple of new songs, where their simple sound is bulked up by the deployment of delays and loops. On one, Nicolaus takes the lead, with Rossen layering his own vocals into the sort of ethereal chorus not unlike the multiple Justin Vernons who inhabit the Bon Iver album. For the final encore, those wordless harmonies come right to the fore; a gaseous, gorgeous sound that’s closer to the otherness of Grizzly Bear, or even perhaps Animal Collective.
There’s also a cover, of Jojo’s “Too Little, Too Late”, which proves more potent than most indie versions of R&B/pop hits possibly because, up until this morning, I’d never actually heard the original.
Before Department Of Eagles, Keith Wood of Hush Arbors stood in the same spot as Nicolaus, looking uncannily similar to him. Wood and Leon Dufficy are another guitar duo who’ve pared down their sound, for the time being at least; from a dense psychedelic thicket, to a dappled and, again, moderately eerie extrapolation of folk tradition.
It’s great, too – as their recent self-titled album on Ecstatic Peace suggested. Gentler and more song-oriented than previous shows by them that I’ve caught, the focus is tightly on that new album, with songs like “Rue Hollow” having a frail beauty reminiscent of the first couple of PG Six albums (that song, incidentally, is dedicated by Wood to James Jackson Toth, aka Wooden Wand, another distinct kindred spirit).
By “Follow Closely”, Dufficy is playing a kind of low-level freak-out solo, as if from another dimension, or at least from another room. It’s endemic of the subtlety that dominates the whole evening, even in Mr David Viner’s theatrical English take on earlyish Dylan. Viner’s schtick and songcraft has evolved somewhat from his early days as an Anglo satellite of the Detroit garage scene (I first encountered him in Paris, selling merchandise for The Von Bondies), and if there’s a problem here tonight, it’s that his stentorian delivery sometimes detracts from the neatness of his blues fingerpicking.
But seeing how he had his mobile phone prominently displayed throughout the set, in case his wife went into labour, we should probably excuse minor quibbles. Good show, again, all round. Next Club Uncut, remember, is January 27, with Delta Spirit and the mighty Crystal Antlers.