The first Monday morning of spring seems a good time to finally tackle the new Grizzly Bear album, “Veckatimest”, which I know I’ve been promising for a while. Without getting into some blog hype thing in the tradition of the Animal Collective (it was Grizzly Bear who reputedly leaked a couple of AC tracks and caused a lot of the fuss, if I remember right), “Veckatimest” is looking from here like the best album of this bit of 2009, at the very least.
The comparison with Animal Collective is apposite, of course, because Grizzly Bear are another band out of Brooklyn, and another one who specialise in a kind of ethereally-adjusted close harmony singing. Grizzly Bear, though, aren’t quite as untethered as AC; there’s a distant kinship with Fleet Foxes, too, and Robin Pecknold has already been vocal in his support for “Veckatimest”.
But if the last Grizzly Bear album, 2006’s “Yellow House”, contained distinct trace elements of folk, “Veckatimest” is a subtly different beast. From the shuffling, jazzy chords that open “Southern Point”, there’s another kind of ghostly retro-futurism that inflects these lovely and saturated pop songs. At heart, for sure, Grizzly Bear are four scholarly young men with a taste for a sort of melodic, fey music which is at once both intimate and expansive.
But repeatedly in these 12 songs, you can just detect an odd hint of soul. It’s most evident in “Two Weeks”, a song which has been around for a while on Youtube. Ostensibly, it’s a street corner doo-wop song, something like Dion & The Belmonts, given an unearthly, even angelic sheen by the curious dynamics and effects which seem to be a speciality of Grizzly Bear.
The song’s anchored by a constant piano plonk, which sounds creaky and weathered, as if sampled from a record recorded long ago in a distant New York. “Two Weeks” has a fabulous melody, too, but it’s this harmonious tension between vintage sounds, massed voices and contemporary disorientation which makes “Veckatimest” so dreamy.
“Cheerleader” works similarly, with a thin guitar sound that could’ve sloped in from Motown working as a prelude to a rapturous, yearning “Pet Sounds” chorus (no mention of The Beach Boys ‘til the sixth paragraph is something to be moderately proud of here, I’d say). Even on songs fronted by Daniel Rossen, that echo the genteel McCartneyisms of his lovely Department Of Eagles record from the end of last year, there are moments that tap into an alternative soulfulness: at the end of the discreet chamber fantasia, “All We Ask”, Rossen leads the band in an agonisingly sweet chant of “I can’t get out of what I’m into with you” over handclaps, loose beats and unsteady hum. It’s one of the most striking sections of a constantly surprising and beautiful record.
“Veckatimest” isn’t one of those over-compressed albums, and the dynamic field in which the sounds move about is another one of its pleasures. It’s not always clear what you’re actually hearing – not through muffled sound, but because the atmosphere is so strong it sometimes distracts you from picking out individual instruments. Intricate baroque chorales appear in unexpected pockets, while there are passages of Nico Muhly’s orchestrations, often mixed low and cut short, which add an unexpected texture.
But the real dynamic weapon is the brittle, buccaneering guitar sound, which looms up and down with quite a swagger. “Fine For Now” might start as a churchy chorale, but by the end, Rossen’s guitar has become actively abrasive, even going so far as to form a wiry, teeth-rattling solo. It would be – and will be, as they become better-known – easy to stereotype Grizzly Bear as precious, but that would underestimate the gristle and punch there, too.
That becomes most potent in “While You Wait For The Others” (the other song that’s been around for a while), where Rossen’s cranked guitar nails down Ed Droste’s lovely song with heft and tension. I’m reminded for some reason of Radiohead, maybe “There There” or something, compounded by the vivid invention of the next track, “I Live With You”, which begins with Disney orchestras and choirs, and artfully wanders into a series of clattering Technicolor crescendos.
It’s exhilarating, and the whole package, from the album’s evocative name (that Veckatimest is an uninhabited island off the coast of Cape Cod, is incidental) to the beautiful sleeve. I think this is going to be a biggish record in our world this year, and I’m sure the love it’s going to receive around the internet in the next couple of months will wind a fair few people up. But when you get a chance to hear, let me know, as ever, what you think.