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Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest

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Artist: Grizzly Bear

Album: Veckatimest

Label: Warp

Review date: May. 26, 2009

Grizzly Bear has experimented with many different ways to color and embellish their folk-pop songs. Their first album, Horn of Plenty, is the closest to a traditional singer-songwriter folk album, perhaps because Edward Droste wrote most of it on his own, before forming the band. Horn of Plenty still employed a range of effects that distorted and altered the otherwise straightforward songs, and by the time the album received a wide release in 2005, Grizzly Bear had commissioned a number of remixes. The next album, Yellow House, ditched many of the effects from the first and instead turned song fragments into five- or six-minute suites. Yellow House also expanded on two things that have become Grizzly Bear’s trademarks: a thematic pastoralism (the title, for instance, referred to the house on Cape Cod where they recorded the album), and three- and four-part vocal harmonies. They released another EP, reworking some older material and remixing a few songs from Yellow House, in the fall of 2007. Now, a little less than three years after Yellow House, they’ve released Veckatimest, their third and most heavily anticipated album.

You have to say this for Grizzly Bear: In an age where the Web has created innumerable overnight sensations hyped before their time, Grizzly Bear – whose line-up now consists of Droste, Christopher Bear, Daniel Rossen and Chris Taylor – have followed a workman-like path to success. Veckatimest is, by a fair margin, their most ambitious album. They’ve brought in the Acme String Quartet and the Brooklyn Youth Choir as collaborators, and enlisted the very prominent Nico Muhly for string and choral arrangements. It’s also the album that seems most likely to win them an even bigger audience; two songs in particular, "Two Weeks" and "While You Wait for the Others," are the first honest-to-goodness radio-ready hit songs they’ve ever released, with catchy instrumental breaks and soaring choruses (albeit choruses with four-part harmonies).

While Grizzly Bear owes less and less to folk music and more and more to late-1960s art rock on each record, however, they haven’t changed many of their themes. The preoccupation with pastoral imagery is still there. Veckatimest Island is an uninhabited spot on the south end of the cape, which the band alludes to during the album’s first words ("Our haven on the southern point is calling us,"). On "Dory," Rossen sings about "swim[ming] around like two dories let loose in the bay." And despite the upbeat-sounding "Two Weeks" and "While You Wait for the Others" Grizzly Bear hasn’t changed the pensive quality present in many of their songs. "Ready, Able," bounces along in its opening part but then pauses for a shivering electronic break. Rossen’s "Hold Still" moves along like a dirge, interrupted by a spare guitar figure.

But Veckatimest is also the least memorable of Grizzly Bear’s albums, largely because of all the additional flourishes. Yellow House occasionally drifted into formlessness, but it was a strong album because the experimentation seldom obscured the songwriting. On Veckatimest, by contrast, the experimentation can go over the top: the additional arrangements may not add much aside from being one more thing to admire. And, paradoxically, doing that moves some songs out of the avant-garde and squarely into the middle of the road.

The best song on the album – the closing "Foreground" – is a good reminder of why Grizzly Bear is such an appealing band. A short, delicate piano tune subtly underlined with strings, it soars not because it is impressively ornamented but rather because everything is woven together so well. Veckatimest could have used more songs like it.

By Tom Zimpleman

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Yellow House

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