To propose that there might be a genius or two creating popular music in the 21st century may be anathema to those of a certain vintage. After all, Lennon, (Tim) Buckley, Van Vliet, and co. are no longer with us. Indeed one is liable to invite ridicule at the mere suggestion, but I would venture that if people are prepared to look hard enough there are at least a few, one of whom is Daniel Rossen, co-contributor to the wonderful NY foursome, Grizzly Bear.
Grizzly Bear began as a moniker for Ed Droste who, to little fanfare, released a low-fi debut entitled Horn of Plenty in 2004. For the second full-length feature, the ranks had swelled to include three other members, most significantly 23-year old Department of Eagles multi-instrumentalist, Rossen. Droste’s recruitment policy demonstrated shrewd judgement – in fact it was a masterstroke, Rossen’s widescreen West Coast sensibilities were less a musical appendage than the catalyst for a revolution in the band’s modus operandi.
The first fruits of this remoulding, Yellow House (recorded in Droste’s mother’s house), might sound at first like a bunch of (flamboyantly) half-baked ideas toiling in vain to find conventional form, and could be easily dismissed as such by the more casual, less discerning listener. But as the saying goes: ‘a new home slowly reveals it’s secrets’, so too with Yellow House.
Take the album’s opener for instance. ‘Easier’ patiently emerges from atmospheric woodwind and upright piano before being transfigured by Disneyesque harmonising and then an amalgam of sounds which I can only describe as a fantasia of bluegrass-flavoured Impressionism. Like much of the album, it features banjo, autoharp and glockenspiel, and if someone said to you that it was the most beautiful song they had ever heard, you could not feign surprise.
If Marla’s stalking waltzlike piano conveys a sense of foreboding, it is soon transfigured by a string arrangement which sounds like ghosts escaping from one of Debussy’s tone poems, weaving into the solemnity their alluring supernatural tapestries.
But it is not all rhapsody and capriccio. After a breezily acoustic beginning, the guitars on ‘On A Neck And A Spit’ hurtle, crash and collapse together causing an unnerving pile up, before Rossen raises the tempo with a buzzing (Roy) Harper-esque bastard-folk foot stomp. ‘Lullaby’ does what it says on the tin, until half way in it is violently ambushed by a gaggle of Grizzly guitars. While ‘Knife’ is at least more musically orthodox, and easily the closest to a ‘hit’ here, it’s lyrics ( I want you to know / When I look in your eyes / With every blow / Comes another lie / You think it’s alright / Can’t you feel the knife?) mean it is unlikely it will find its way into your repertoire of songs to sing in the shower.
There is such a range of genre-hopping versatility on show here, that the result is the creation of something almost uncategorisable, and there is some evidence to suggest the band seek further afield than most for their musical inspiration, in particular to film soundtracks. Consider for example the unearthly harmonising on the incredibly complex ‘Central and Remote’, eerily redolent (3:24-4:03) of Krzysztof Komeda’s score for Polanski’s ‘Fearless Vampire Killers’. And is it just me, or does the achingly beautiful ‘interlude’ on the incomparable ‘Little Brother’ parallel Вячеслав Овчинников’s exquisite music for the ‘apples and horses’ dream sequence in Tarkovsky’s ‘Ivan’s Childhood’? In each case the meticulous craftsmanship, borrowed reference points or not, is to be admired and cherished.
The closer ‘Colorado’ with its densely layered vocal overdubs has to be heard to be believed. Imagine the Beach Boys ‘Smile’ version of ‘Cool Cool Water’ being recorded by Big Star during sessions for their ill-fated third album and you may get close. It’s a bewildering end to a bewitching album, one that ranks alongside ‘Forever Changes’ and ‘Spirit of Eden’ as one of music’s great documents of reinvention.
The last time of any note a group of precocious and wide-eyed musicians in their mid-20s retired to an old house to express with such versatility and virtuosity a new musical language, the result was Music From Big Pink’, an album that changed the course of popular music. No far-reaching influence was to follow from Yellow House but it is an historical document that will surely be blessed with similar longevity. It leaves you wondering: why isn’t all music this imaginative? The answer to that question is no secret. Put a sign up outside that Yellow House: ‘Daniel Rossen: Genius At Work’.
What is implicit on Yellow House is made explicit on Veckatimest; what was alluded to is now clearly defined; what was hidden is now revealed; where there was a sophomoric air, there is now professorial authority; what sounded exploratory has now reached perfect distillation.
I can barely bring myself to talk about Veckatimest for fear of allowing some of it’s magic to somehow escape in a cloud of loquaciousness. It will suffice to mention that ‘Southern Point’ is the best one stop introduction to the band’s music, and that ‘I Live With You’ is one of the most impossibly beautiful things I have ever heard. So let me keep it simple: Veckatimest is very probably the greatest album of the 21st Century so far. (JJ)