Two Weeks from Veckatimest by Grizzly Bear is used with permission.
If You're Feeling Philosophical...
The Remaking of Freak Folk
By Lucas Durant
All good art transcends its origins. Once it stands as an artwork, it both takes on life of its own and gives new life to the context from which it emerges. Jazz musicians like Thelonius Monk and Dizzie Gillespie spun worlds of their own out of swing, creating the fast-tempoed, dissonant bebop. Even as Virgil’s Aneid attempted to locate itself within the classical form of epic poetry, it, at the same time, surpassed what the form once was and granted it a new life. Complete originality is a modern myth: All works spring from an already existing form, but no true work of art leaves the form as it found it. If one trusts the scads of blog posts and reviews, the new genre-bucking, paradigm shifting magnum opus is Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest.
Grizzly Bear finds its origin in the freak-folk scene, which in turn finds its origins in the psychedelic folk of the sixties, which in turn finds its origin in the American folk of the depression era, which in turn … well, you get the picture. Freak-folk has always been, in my estimation, a rather vapid and formulaic genre. Take a few drugs, freely associate more and less shocking imagery, abruptly strike a few chords (literally and figuratively), and fade out with unsettling sound loops. Nothing can be hung on the songs—no sentiments or intimations of meaning—because they lack a framework. The songwriters haphazardly construct the tunes and lyrics, seemingly for the sole purpose of ensnaring undergraduates studying critical theory.
Veckatimest, Grizzly Bear’s third album, manages to bend the freak-folk genre very near to its breaking point. Though it still contains several of the signature elements of the style—frequent time signature changes, opaque lyrics, and the intermingling of various musical motifs—it manages to pull off two things that few bands in the category have: cohesion and accessibility. The unity of the album cannot be explained by reference to the raw sounds of which it is composed (electronic, acoustic, choral, percussive, driving and/or atmospheric depending on the track in question), nor by means of the eclectic structure of the songs. None of the elements are unified, but taken together they produce a melancholic gestalt, where even the soaring and angelic choir of voices, which graces several of the tracks, only deepen the encroaching sense of despair.
Some elements of the album portray this motif more obviously than others. The vocalist on “Fine For Now” repeats, ‘We’re all faltering / why’d I help with that?’ and ‘there is time / so much time’ delivered with a distinct lack of earnestness; on “Cheerleader” - in lines like ‘I’m cheerleading myself / I should have let it matter’- we glimpse the inefficacy of self-esteem culture. “Southern Point”, “Ready, Able”, and “I Live With You” speak to the profound isolation that can underlie even the closest relationships. “Two Weeks," “Hold Still” and “Foreground” reveal the dreariness of quotidian life.
This desperate content is mirrored in the formal elements of the songs. Grizzly Bear has a way of making their vocals ‘instrumental’ in quality. The vocals fade in and out of the foreground, and harmonize or clash, throughout – as if struggling to find their identities among a multitude of competitors (horns, guitars, strings, drums, synths, and more). Spiraling harmonies emerge from and return to cacophonous layers, which in turn emerge from and return to relatively straightforward and accessible, even pop-y, song structures; the musical exposition of the happiness and chaos that befall otherwise predictable lives. There is however, no joy in the music; all the highs are delivered without earnestness and tinged with despondency, as if to suggest the illusory nature of happiness.
Veckatimest qualifies as a great work of art in one sense – it transcends and reinvigorates its own origins. Freak-folk should never be the same, but I imagine its purveyors may take as long as the neo-classicists to recognize that the game has changed. For this, I heartily and unequivocally recommend Veckatimest. And yet I question whether this artwork truly transcends all the genres from which it originates. As much as it transcends freak-folk musically, it remains conceptually mired in an existential framework. It has the power to sweep one away into a world of ennui in a way that few albums can, but no one will read Sartre through Grizzly Bear’s lens, for it has nothing to add to the conversation. Real life contains moments of real joy without winks to let observers know that one is self-aware enough to be in on the joke.
Hold the Condiments...
Phonographs from the Future
By Grant Lawrence
On their third full-length, Veckatimest, Brooklyn-based Grizzly Bear delivers an album that is timeless in the truest sense of the word. By this I mean, not that it will withstand the test of time (I think it will), but that that Veckatimest has an almost sinister amalgamation of sounds from eras both contemporary and long since past. While such synthesis is hardly unheard of in contemporary pop music, Grizzly Bear does it in such a seamless way, that at times, the listener is left wondering if they are in fact listening to their iPod or their great-grandparents’ phonograph.
On their two previous efforts, the band dabbled in sepia-toned themes. 2004’s Horn of Plenty, an eerie collection of minimalist bedroom-folk songs, sounds like it had sat for years in the attic under piles of old quilts and sweaters until it was eventually discovered by the house’s new tenants. Two years later, they released Yellow House, which is both more sonically adventurous and clear. They traded the lo-fi vinyl-like intimacy of their debut for sprawling experimental pop with hints of psychedelia. Veckatimest, released May 26th via Warp, is the natural extension of both of those albums.
Grizzly Bear has come a long way from its humble beginnings. What largely began as the brainchild of Ed Droste has since expanded into a full four piece band. Opening for the likes of Radiohead and Wilco, as well as performing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra has expanded the scope of the band’s appeal and sound. While Horn of Plenty was more or less Droste’s solo effort, both Yellow House and Veckamitest have added Daniel Rossen to both songwriting and vocal duties. Although somewhat limited on Yellow House, Rossen’s vocals take an equal if not dominate role on Veckatimest. The overall similarities of Grizzly Bear’s latest to Rossen’s side-project’s superb 2008 release (Department of Eagles, In Ear Park) make me wonder just how significant his role has become. On the opener, “Southern Point,” a jazzy bass and drum line intro brings to mind Greenwich Village era Simon & Garfunkel, which is only enhanced as Rossen’s vocals take front center. “Two Weeks,” the albums first single, sounds like a Beach Boys’ b-side with its sprightly keyboard-heavy arrangement and soaring harmonies.
After the first two tracks however, the album takes a decidedly more antiquated turn for inspiration than the 1960s. Several tracks, including “All We Ask” and “Ready, Able,” sound straight out of the smoky doors of a depression-era speakeasy, with their ethereal harmonies and carnival-esque melodies. I can’t help but imagine Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and other expatriates enjoying a picnic on the banks of the Seine with a bottle or two of Chablis as the gentle tunes of “Hold Still” and “Dory” lull them to sleep in the noonday sun. Perhaps chief among the components that add to Veckatimest’s vintage feel is the vocals themselves. There is a level of complexity to their harmonies, which permeate the majority (if not all) of the album’s tracks. Even the vocal delivery, which lacks an affected quality, is more in line with pre-war ballads than contemporary pop music.But just as you get comfortable with those bygone surroundings, the band brings you back to modern times with crashing cymbals and electronic flourishes. A staple of their live shows for several years, “While We Wait For the Others” is a reverb-heavy chamber pop number that serves as the album’s best contender for a true rock song.
Ultimately, Veckatimest succeeds because it delivers a rare blend of songs that are both old-fashioned and completely relevant. It is the Grizzly Bear album that is most accessible and has the strongest pop sensibilities to date without sacrificing the band’s characteristic mystery and oddity. Whether streaming from a state-of-the-art sound system or the oldest secondhand turntable, Veckatimest plays as a first-class pop album.