by DAVID KERN
ARTIST: Grizzly Bear
OUR RATING: 9.0
AVAILABLE: May 26
Dangling somewhere on the fringe of the popular modern music scene, edging ever closer to the glitz and glamor of popular success, and yet seemingly opposed to all that said scene and success stands for, a new wave of so-called indie artists is setting forth a new pop aesthetic. Born of a sort of beatnik ilk, these artists are more concerned with cultural ethics and aesthetic accountability than the stick-it-to-the-man rebellion so pervasive in much of modern independent music’s most driven acts, let alone any sort of popular success. Distinctly anti-materialistic in their content, these artists borrow from the reactionary standards of traditional folk and Americana; abundantly focused on social, economic and natural justice, these artists are less angry than optimistic, less interested in freedom than community, and less interested in tearing down any sort of establishment as much as restoring an age-old but often forgotten one. Yes, these new musicians pay homage to artists and genres of the past, not forgetting their place in musical history nor even the substantial place of the artist in the larger culture.
Marked by ambiguous - if not altogether esoteric - lyrics and lush baroque harmonies that call to mind Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, boys choirs, and American church music, artists like The Decemberists, Animal Collective, The Arcade Fire, Midlake, Fleet Foxes, and to an extent Sufjan Stevens, have become the torchbearers of this so-called “freak-folk” revivalist movement. And now Grizzly Bear looks poised to shine brightly as the dawn of the century’s second decade draws near.
Almost as hyped as Animal Collective’ suddenly beloved Merriweather Post Pavilion, the Brooklyn quartet’s third effort, Veckatimest, was hailed by Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold as one of the great albums of the decade. And, not surprisingly, the similarities between Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes are striking: the gorgeous harmonies; the impressionistic, orchestral arrangements; the album’s rustic tone and folksy heartbeat. Sonically, Veckatimest has more in common with the Fleet Foxes ‘08 debut LP than the stratospheric ambiances of Animal Collective or even the epic rock sounds of The Arcade Fire. However, Grizzly Bear’s wandering, twisting, dreamy form is certainly more reminiscent of the experimental ethos of aesthetic eclecticism in which Animal Collective indulges.
Indeed, Veckatimest (named for an island near Cape Cod) is ultimately a success because it avoids both the extreme romanticism of experimental self-indulgence and the cynicism of truly anti-establishment Americana, content to linger somewhere in between the worlds, content to mutate and change, to be elastic in the listener’s senses. Yes, it’s an album that sticks with you, but not one that forces itself upon you. It’s subtleties are rich and various and listeners would do well to listen carefully.
And while Grizzly Bear’s music may seem to have less to say about the world’s ethical or moral state than either Animal Collective or The Arcade Fire, their own enigmatic lyricism (in the many forms of the word) is no less meaningful. Like the art of many of their aforementioned contemporaries, Grizzly Bear’s music possesses an emotional immediacy rarely seen in au courant pop music, a resonance more commonly met in the understated poignancy of traditional folk music whose civic concerns can’t help but affect emotion.
The artful progression of their songs seems narrative driven in and of itself, thereby enhancing - or perhaps clarifying - the cryptic nature of their lyrics. Album opener, “Southern Point,” begins with the dramatic jingle jangle of a folk rock guitar number that bleeds into Ed Droste’s silky falsetto, followed by the dramatic entrance of tribal-like drums and the multi-layered background vocals of band-mates Daniel Rossen, Chris Bear (his given name, truly) and Chris Taylor. “Two Weeks” is an airy, keys-driven confluence of that same falsetto with the “oh-ooh-oh” tenor of the choir. “Fine for Now”, probably the most “freak-folkish” track on the record, opens with an a-capella call to order that eventually wanders into the distorted energy of contemporary indie’s most recognizable guitar sounds. “About Face” and “Hold Still” may seem, on the surface, to be the album’s simplest songs, but they are certainly among the most intimate in a collection of tracks that beg for the bedroom and a bottle of wine - or, if you will, a breeze, a porch and a mug of tea. Meanwhile, the record closes with an unforgettable pair of songs - “I Live With You,” and “Foreground” - each of which are classically influenced, sultry, romantic numbers whose existence are possible only because of the tradition-conscious union of time-honored folk music and ornamental baroque aesthetics.
It’s ironic, in many ways, that independent pop music’s most avant garde acts are usually guided by artists whose faces are most prominently turned towards the past - the time line of American music’s history and progression. But the best of these artists, a group in which the men of Grizzly Bear are now firmly implanted, set themselves apart by managing to re-define and re-imagine their art form with the same profundity that marked their forebears’ best efforts.
David Kern is the editor of Into the Hill. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.