Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Baroque N' Roll

Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest (Warp, 2009)

Having studiously ignored the leak of Grizzly Bear’s latest magnum opus that set the internet alight some months ago, I may now look like the slowest writer in the blogosphere. But, as the tortoise said to the hare, sometimes slow and steady wins the race. I would always prefer to voice a considered opinion over one influenced by hyperbole and feverish excitement. Rest assured that ‘Veckatimest’ is a major statement, although there are transparent reasons why it hasn’t generated quite the same critical elation here in the UK as, say, Animal Collective’s ‘Merriweather Post Pavillion’.

‘Two Weeks’ and ‘Cheerleader’, the two tracks offered as official tasters, prove in some ways to be red herrings. The former is an immediate and appealing slice of ornate chamber pop, with a lush, blissful vocal arrangement. The latter is a lithe, almost funky light rock groove in which everything (even the choir) is delivered with delicacy and restraint. They both benefit from some imaginative musicianship. ‘Two Weeks’ pits some carefully voiced drumming against an insistent keyboard stomp. Whilst these pieces are both intricately arranged, they give little hint of the hyper-composed, rigorously organised nature of the rest of ‘Veckatimest’. It’s a consistently absorbing listen, but absorbing mainly in the sense that it demands complete and uncompromised attention.

Clearly, in these times of attention deficiency and choice saturation, this is no bad thing. One major criterion for a work that might stand the test of time is that it should provide more than just an instant thrill. Grizzly Bear are not looking for the rapidly fading pleasures of a casual fling – they’re after the long term relationship. The band’s preoccupations on ‘Veckatimest’ seem to be focused as much on sound and timbre as they are on pop’s traditional domains of melody and harmony.

Another reason that this album hasn’t quite met with the universal acclaim bloggers predicted is that its sound is not altogether that fashionable or modish. Whilst it is ornate, it is never grandiose or anthemic. The employment of arranger du jour Nico Muhly hasn’t resulted in the band pressing any of the obvious buttons to lift the hairs on the back of the neck. Both Muhly and the band themselves are more sophisticated musicians. A lot of ‘Veckatimest’ is more cerebral and whilst Grizzly Bear have sounded mysterious and meandering in the past, parts of ‘Veckatimest’ seem surprisingly dark and foreboding. I’m reminded particularly of Hans Christian Andersen fairytales when listening to this.

The musical comparisons that most strike me are ones that would not so long ago have ensured a band was in for a critical mauling. I can’t help thinking of the surreal and highly composed worlds of 1970s music – King Crimson and Van De Graf Generator particularly spring to mind. This sophisticated approach to writing for a rock ensemble seems to be increasingly prominent once again. Grizzly Bear’s closest contemporary relations might well be Dirty Projectors, but there’s an immediate visceral impact to Dave Longstreth’s meticulously planned constructions that is mostly absent here. This music is more nebulous – its emotional core often concealed behind a studied veneer and customarily oblique lyrics.

Put in the effort though, and ‘Veckatimest’ is a coherent work of hazy, melancholy beauty. Its mostly gentle, bucolic arrangements recall the jazz-folk crossovers of John Martyn or Terry Callier, but its occasional explosions of aggression are unexpected, puncturing the calm atmosphere without remorse. The consistent use of close harmony singing explains the public approval from Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes, even if in this context they seem closer to doo wop groups than to Crosby, Stills and Nash. Grizzly Bear also seem less interested in arcane magic realist concerns. For all these reference points, they still seem like a fearlessly contemporary band.

These are not verse-chorus-verse pop songs (and how refreshing that they are not), but they are still informed by a powerful melodic sensibility. It’s perhaps for this reason that I find myself recalling some of the striking sub-sections of songs, rather than the complete songs themselves. There are repeated vocal chants at the end of ‘All We Ask’ and at the centre of ‘Cheerleader’ that substitute for recognisable choruses and are notable for their warmth and inclusiveness. After several listens, some of the album’s more wistful moments become less abstruse. The delightful jazzy flutter of the opening ‘Southern Point’ is particularly charming.

Another important element of this music is the contrast between its peculiar, mysterious gentleness and its moments of abrasive attack. Sometimes the two come together. ‘Hold Still’ is brief but beautiful, all dreamy strummed guitars, but pierced by some Marc Ribot-esque guitar lines that render it disarmingly sinister. The various impulses directing this music coalesce majestically towards the album’s conclusion, with the astonishing ‘I Live With You’, which manages to combine bombast with tenderness and empathy with anger.

‘Veckatimest’ sounds like a labour of love and care, preoccupied as it is with musical colour, texture and mood. There are few modern rock bands who could craft something this precise whilst also imbuing it with feeling. ‘Veckatimest’ is made all the more complex by its alternating senses of joy and sadness. It requires some work, but it is not impermeable – it gradually reveals its discreet strengths and considerable charms. There will not be many better records released this year.

1 comment:

Demob Happy said...

not the slowest Daniel, you beat me! Like you I favour the tortoise approach to the hare's. I only recently received this album, but will give it a fair number of spins before the final verdict. My initial impressions are that, while very good, it's not a lot better than Department of Eagles' (admittedly very good) In Ear Park. We'll see...