On the heels of a two-month early album leak and the bubbly single, “Two Weeks,” Brooklyn indie rock band Grizzly Bear’s latest album, “Veckatimest,” burst into 2009 with an amount of praise comparable only to Animal Collective’s “Merriweather Post Pavillion.” The band played to an anxious Ann Arbor crowd Sept. 26 at the Michigan Theater.
Their previous album, “Yellow House,” was released in 2006. It was complex, stubborn and demanding; simultaneously a relic with a tale to tell and a newfangled toy completely engrossed in itself. Subtly subverting the pastoral music of a sepia-tinged backwoods past, “Yellow House” was a technological breakthrough, an album that could have only sounded like the past because it was made in the present. It is furthermore one of the most beautiful recordings I have heard in a long time.
Grizzly Bear ambled onto the Michigan Theater stage enclosed in a mock forest: large metal crosses hung lights in periodically twinkling glass jars, acting as dancing fireflies for the band’s spacious, open-air music. They then tore into ‘Southern Point,’ the lead track on “Veckatimest,” taking what was on record a knotty shuffle and shaking it laterally. It was off kilter, so close to surrendering to stability that I was positive someone had missed their cue. But no, this was how the band was going to play it live. And, even if they didn’t entirely stabilize, they found common ground to steadily wobble and occasionally soared. I enjoyed the lopsided arrangement tremendously. It felt bizarre and ready for a nosedive that it never actually took.
The rest of the performance of their “Veckatimest” material did not live up to that first song. This is not to say that their rendering of the album was inadequate or unconvincing. On the contrary, it was perfect. For music so insistent on a sort of innovative perfection, the band’s uphill grind through the album was note-for-note. It was flawless.
“Veckatimest” isn’t that much different than “Yellow House.” The haunting folk melodies in principal songwriters Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen’s songs, the psychedelic sonic trickery deployed by bassist/producer Chris Taylor and the wondrous group vocal harmonies are all still in attendance.
But despite my previous love of the band, I’m wondering now if they and the album are worthy of all the massive praise.
The beauty in Grizzly Bear’s music appears at first immanent; it’s practically impossible to escape from. Cascading melodies are stacked on top of each other like a puzzle. Sometimes sunny, sometimes celestial, but always bewitching harmonies are then affixed to the melodies like puzzle pieces. While nothing on “Yellow House” felt really precious or strained, look at those descriptors again. They don’t sound natural at all, and only after repeated listens to “Veckatimest” and a sitting through their Ann Arbor concert did the music become as tired and as a predetermined as a nap two weeks in the future. And their lyrics, even if they sparkled, were just worthless byproducts surrendering to all that was stringently tuneful. It’s in Grizzly Bear’s exacting efforts to be beautiful, or at the very least impressive, that they grow weary and I jaded.
Dubbing the band methodical doesn’t do them or the term justice. How about calling “Veckatimest ‘a brilliantly systematic venture to be brilliant.’ Too convoluted? Regardless, the album’s sizable proclamation of artistic importance requires numerous – all the way through – listens in order to retrieve Grizzly Bear’s gospel; the utter certainty that their faith in craftsmanship and perfectionism, while intellectually astounding, is physically and emotionally unfriendly. They sound like a band that felt obligated to make a masterpiece after an intriguing artistic statement. “Veckatimest” even seems to call attention to itself for doing so; in which case the band unquestionably tried way too hard.
And the concert: one big quasi-experimental, overly ornate, immaculate recreation of their albums (and my god was it as disadvantageously impressive as this sentence). With lofty intellectual objectives lacking any outspoken bodily ambitions, there was no wriggle room. It’s now virtually a prerequisite that each piece of the puzzle be kept relatively stationary so that all their ideas are made monstrously lucid. Live and on record, Grizzly Bear’s musical movement comes from their melodies and tacked on harmonies, not Chris Bear’s drumming; more used as an apostle of the band’s democracy, rather than a participant in it. Bear’s superbly adept drumming doesn’t conjure motion, or even rock the boat. Live, on “Veckatimest” track “Ready, Able” there was an unmistakable boat being rocked, but the spark of musical movement was exclusively gestured forward by shimmering guitars advancing and retreating, and a chorus constructed like a carousel (up and down we oscillate); not the drums, the bearer of the beat. Written in ¾ time, it was the most rhythmically propulsive song of the night, and also the most emblematic of Grizzly Bear’s thorn in my side because it went absolutely nowhere.
A few of the band’s other songs just plain wear out their welcomes in alike musical configuration. The minor key tunes “Little Brother,” “Fine For Now” and “I Live With You” are as impressive as anything Grizzly Bear has done, but they’re all structured in almost exactly the same fashion. (It should be noted that the version of “Little Brother” I am referring to is the live, electric version, and that the “Yellow House” version is much, much different.) Each begins pensively with Rossen’s strumming a darkened, smoky guitar; then enter some lyrics chiming and lifting from his tenor, and then a cacophonous to and fro chorus with gnarled, reverb-drenched guitars riffs restating the melody, only noisier, spelling out c-l-i-m-a-x. Once more, the rhythm in these songs is so overpowered by the blaring to and fro that Bear becomes just an opportunity to make the crescendo louder.
It just cannot be said though that these songs – or any of their songs – are bad in the same evaluative sense that one can say a song on the radio is ‘bad.’ There is too much forethought in every single thing the band attempts.
So then are any of my criticisms really knowing? If I can unequivocally state that quality has found its way into everything the band has produced, what does that mean for my assessment? What does it musically represent to declare Grizzly Bear’s performance amazingly dull? “Veckatimest” will most definitely be on a boatload of year-end best-of lists for all the same reasons I denounce it. Hell, I thought it was the best album of the year for about two weeks! I guess some other questions we need to be asking here is if it’s fair to criticize music for being too beautiful? too formal and inflexible as an assertion of artistic purpose? I say yes if that music is ostentatiously dressed for a wedding. In Ann Arbor, it was mostly the “Veckatimest” and not “Yellow House” tracks that were all dolled up but not prepared to dance. And just like a wedding, Grizzly Bear really is the best day of your life until you remember about tomorrow, and then it’s an indifferent blur. I still don’t know how to quantify that day. It simply left me cold.
Maybe I’m the one who’s too serious.