Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest

veckatimest

Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest (Warp Records; released May 26th, 2009)

What exactly does a “perfect” album sound like? What criteria would one use to accurately gauge a “perfect” score?

I don’t want to sit here and try to tell you that music criticism is some academic thing; the easiest way to rate an album is good (I will definitely listen to this again!) or bad (I will not listen to this ever again!). That’s how I arrive at my first opinion, after the initial listen. Does it warrant a repeat listen? If yes, why? Because my curiosity is piqued? Or is this actually good music? What is it I like so much about this that I’m going to immediately listen to it again? This is where it becomes a little more scholastic; this is where I begin to pick it apart- this is the actual criticism.

So I’ve broken down all the major categories to what makes a particular song/album so interesting, along with the question/thoughts that run through my head when I’m in reviewer mode:

1) Vocals- “What is the singer saying, and how is it being said?” “Are they whiny, annoying?” “Why are you screaming at me?” “Are they too low in the mix?” “Nice two-part harmony there.”

2) Instrumentation- “What is that second guitar doing there?” “Is this lead necessary?” “Is that an oboe?” “Ooooh, I like that drum fill there!” “Rhythm is everything…” “Tight groove, holmes!” “HORNS! Music needs more horn sections!” “Electric, acoustic, whatever.”

3) Sound- “Where’s the melody?” “Has this record been properly produced to allow said band’s sound to emerge?” “Are they trying to capture their live aesthetic?” “Oh, it’s awful and drony, when will it end?” “What the fuck is that buzzing noise?” “That sample again? So played out, man…”

4) Structure- “Does your intro need to be more than three minutes long?” “Where’s the bridge? Anybody seen the bridge? Take me to the bridge!” “Why do so many songs follow the same intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus-outro formula? Don’t they know that’s boring?” “Yeah, that car crash at the end of the song was subtle.”

5) Mood- “I just wanna dance to these synths!” “Or, no- these violins make me wanna cry on my pillow and look at my picture of you from our junior prom.” “Wow, ambient…” “This is some brutal grindcore!” “The lead singer’s insecurities are making me a little uncomfortable.”

Now that you’ve effectively delved into my neurotic mind; you can better see how it is I go about “reviewing” music. We all know that more often than not what the writer is saying about the piece of music hitting his/her ears has nothing to do with the actual music, it’s more or less an aural Rorschach Test- it’s making me feel anxious, it reminds me of a bad memory, I think it’s making me flatulent, this is so joyously happy, etc… that sort of thing.

I’m thinking back to Grizzly Bear‘s Yellow House and the little capsule review I did for that record on my old site. I was hyper anxious the last few months of that year, getting ready to move three thousand miles west. I remember listening to that album a lot on Friday nights, during my pizza delivery gig- it really calmed me down amidst the michigoss of cash-grabbery. Here’s what I said:

Freak folk was huge this year. These guys remind me of Cass McCombs and/or Nick Drake. Call it freak-folk, psychedelic folk, acid folk, whatever. I just know that I like it. It’s like coffee-house folk music but someone slipped something into the coffee. Colorado may just be one of my tracks of the year, it’s haunting, yet comforting and beautiful. I got this too late in the year, check back soon and it’ll probably be in my top 10.

Haunting, yet comforting and beautiful. That pretty much sums up Grizzly Bear‘s music for me. It’s perfect in that that’s exactly what it does to me- it scares me a little bit, but at the same time tells me everything’s going to be alright, and that it’s okay to be afraid.

Veckatimest, Grizzly Bear‘s (and 2009’s most) highly anticipated album is like that calming voice whispering from beyond the shadows, telling you not to worry, take a deep breath, relax, you’ll get through this- we’re all going to get through this, but first; there’s the topic of trust- we have to take you somewhere, can you offer yourself to us for just fifty-two minutes? We promise to get you home safely, and it may just change you for the better.

From the opening notes, it’s obvious that Veckatimest is a marked departure from Yellow House; for one- it’s a warmer sounding record. It has much brighter textures helped by a more developed and inclusive “group” feel to it- the vocal harmonies are wound much tighter. It’s benefited greatly from lead Grizzly Ed Droste‘s insistence on including all four members as equals in the collaborative effort. Whereas their 2004 debut Horn Of Plenty was pretty much a Droste solo record, Yellow House incorporated more input from guitarist Daniel Rossen (see also: Department Of Eagles), bassist (and producer) Chris Taylor and drummer Christopher Bear, making Veckatimest a truly cooperative endeavor; I can see all four of the guys huddled over the mixing board for days and weeks making sure every little thing is as it should be- and nothing is out of place.

From the subtle turnarounds on Fine For Now to the Hard Knock Life-aping piano riff on Two Weeks to the bass and drum interplay on Cheerleader to the interwoven vocals on Dory; it’s an album that has grown exponentially more interesting upon repeated listens- one of those fabled “sleeper” albums that doesn’t sink its teeth into you fully at first listen, although you know it’s something special. By the third, fourth, fifth listen it has become that record you find yourself listening to daily while on your lunch break or while taking the train, or any spare moment of alone time you have you find that you’ve let Veckatimest fill up those minutes.

Take the track Ready, Able– with its light but steadily building drums that give way to an ethereal Droste vocalization, cut short by a droning and repetitive guitar riff that again drops away into another world of exquisite celestial instrumentation, exposing the main theme of the song; one of the most beautiful moments on the record. Which is a broad statement to make since there are so many noteworthy moments on this album.

It hasn’t hurt the album that the tracks Two Weeks and Cheerleader have been all over the blogosphere lately, hell- it hasn’t hurt that the record was leaked almost three months early, even though it’s one of the shittiest rips imaginable. But as iPods go, the good old folks at Apple insist that mp3s encoded into AAC format at 128 kbps is the best they can do, so if you’ve been listening to that sub-par rip of course it’s going to sound amazing on your little portable device, which is what I’m doing until I buy the vinyl with everyone else on Tuesday.

Where does it rank in terms of this year’s best? So far, it’s at the top of my list. It’s moodier than the one-note joyousness of Merriweather Post Pavilion, sweepingly covers more emotional ground than Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, more cohesive and less sprawling than the gigantic Dark Was The Night and explores more than one genre contrary to the garage-a-trois of Fuckbook.

Oops, I just let slip my top five records this year…

So, in summation- Veckatimest fits all the criteria explained above (marks of excellent in all categories); vocals, instrumentation, sound, structure and mood; even the supposed lulls in the album serve as vehicles for the more poignant lyrical expressiveness. Hold Still, arguably the low point of the album, is an homage to the fragility of life as humans know it, and I like songs that explain that we’re here for only a short time, cliche or not. But the favor is again returned with the triplet of beautiful songs at the end of the record- While You Wait For The Others, I Live With You and Foreground. It’s like an unfair parting shot, to stick not one or two, but three awesome songs at the bottom of the playlist, making me just about freak out to the deafening silence as the album plays itself out.

Best album of the year, but I have to add “so far”; there’s seven whole months left to 2009…

Tracklisting:

01 Southern Point

02 Two Weeks

03 All We Ask

04 Fine for Now

05 Cheerleader

06 Dory

07 Ready, Able

08 About Face

09 Hold Still

10 While You Wait for the Others

11 I Live With You

12 Foreground

Grizzly Bear