27. GRIZZLY BEAR – YELLOW HOUSE (2006) / (A) VECKATIMEST (2009)

Baroque Pop, Greatest Records, Indie / Alternative, Neo-Psychedelia

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’.

VECKATIMEST

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)

25. BOARDS OF CANADA – IN A BEAUTIFUL PLACE OUT IN THE COUNTRY [EP] (2000)

Electronic

Somewhere, about a 30 minute or so drive south of Glasgow’s city centre, there is a sizeable windfarm. In some ways it is a desolate place – built on the exposed landscape of the Fenwick moors, but on a clear day, if one can brave the wind, it is a beautiful place. It is one of the locations I visualise when I listen to Boards of Canada’s spellbinding EP ‘In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country’, released in 2000.

We all know the story – the Sandison brothers, Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin, emigrated with their family from their native Scotland to Canada for a very short period (1979-1980) when the boys were around 8 or 9 years old. BoC was formed in 1986, named after the National Film Board of Canada, producers of several television documentary films the boys had watched while living in North America. Since then, the band has had several line-ups, the only permanent and remaining members being the two brothers. They are one of the most critically acclaimed artists of the new millennium: their shy and reclusive character and dogged determination to allow their music to speak for itself without  any self-promotion, has won them legions of admirers.  

The music is characterised by a profound sense of displacement and dislocation. One might imagine this compulsion to document their childhood experiences would make for an indulgent trawl through their collective memories, but instead it fashions an experience which, with an almost Machiavellian plunder of the subconscious, subjugates the listener, who is beholden to probe into his own sense of nostalgia as the music plays. The idea that their music could actually brainwash people is an attractive one to Marcus and Eoin. “I do actually believe that there are powers in music that are almost supernatural. I think you actually manipulate people with music, and that is definitely what we are trying to do.” (Boards of Canada, 2001)

Listening today, there I am, 1975, sat in the lotus position amongst my friends in the school’s social area, observing as the janitor/technician wheels out this huge mass of electronic boxes and mess of cables (which look like discarded props from Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’) before, through the miracle of video recording technology, we settle down to watch an educational feature of highly dubious quality. For me, this image is a recurrent one when I listen to Boards of Canada. The analogy is somewhat apt. In the Soviet science-fiction film, the protagonist – Kris Kelvin – is sent to investigate the strange goings on aboard a space station orbiting the (fictional) planet Solaris. What he finds is that the planet’s ocean possesses the capacity to send ‘visitors’, apparitions or ‘islands of memory’  from the past, compelling the recipient to examine his own conscience, ultimately leading to  psychological devastation. Let’s call it The Boards of Canada Effect’.

So what is the process they use? Well, on the surface the music of Boards of Canada is a kind of intense and brooding electronic introspection. With its utilisation of analogue synths and blending of distorted samples and sounds siphoned from vintage tape machines, it seems at times almost joyless: there is little that sounds rapturous or euphoric. But what lends it weight, is the tremendous patience and restraint in the composition – there is no premature reaching for ecstatic highs. Rather, there is an almost nerveless concentration on the development of each sound, where the most minor change of key or chord is liable to disorientate the senses. The listener is thus rewarded with a far more enduring experience, one which stands up to and bears repeated listens.

From the diaprojektor driven beats of the opener ‘Kid For Today’ to the indescribably beautiful closer ‘Zoetrope’ this is a faultless collection. On the latter, a patient minimalist keyboard begins its teetering search for a hook, which (thankfully) never arrives, the track almost dissolving within its own beauty before fading out. It sounds like the breathless farewell speech of an antique musical instrument which gave joy to many, but whose life is now gracefully ebbing away.

In between we have two tracks which remind us that while the boys rural sensibilities are a vital ingredient in the mix, so also is their discomforting capacity for blending their ‘electro-agrarianism’ (as Pitchfork labelled it) with sounds and themes suggesting something more foreboding. ‘Amo Bishop Roden’, the widow of David Koresh, of Branch Davidian / Waco infamy, lends her name to the title of one of the four tracks; this one features a repetitive almost static drone punctuated by beats which change tempo at regular intervals, while a plaintive keyboard surreptitiously fades in and out of the mix.

The title track features a recurrent BoC motif – the laughter of children, particularly disconcerting in the context of the song’s theme, but its unobtrusive beat is enlivened and beatified by one of the most hypnotic and unsettling keyboard parts you could wish to hear. The seductive but sinister atmosphere is accentuated by a vocoder-processed voice, slowed down, which repeats with chilling effect: ‘Come out and live in a religious community in a beautiful place out in the country’. I believe the voice belongs to Amo Bishop Roden. While eerily disturbing, it is a truly stunning piece of music.

‘In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country’ deserves to take its place in the all-time pantheon of greatest ever EPs, alongside ‘Chronic Town’ ‘Slates’ and ‘Datapanik in The Year Zero’. These may be musically tenuous reference points, but some even unlikelier comparisons could be made. In their approach to recording – where every note is sweated over until distilled to perfection, and each sound subjected to the utmost scrutiny before its inclusion on a record –  BoC employ a similar aesthetic to their fellow compatriots The Blue Nile (at least in Buchanan’s early days). Finally, I was watching the Dexys documentary ‘Nowhere is Home’ on BBC4 last week, and was intrigued by Kevin Rowland declaring he had no interest in forming friendships with fans, but that he was determined to treat them with ‘total respect’ through a commitment to high quality recordings and the delivery of impassioned concert performances. That very admirable ethos mirrors that of BoC, which is based on the following principle:

“We always assume that the listener is the most intelligent person imaginable” (Boards of Canada, 2001)

This is a vision shared by the late great Soviet director, whose austere but visually stunning film-making invited its audience to co-create its own film from each individual’s subjective viewing experience.  It may often not be true that the viewer – or listener – is the most intelligent person imaginable, but he can be sure of one thing: the quality of the music of Boards of Canada is guaranteed by such integrity and this unquestionably purist approach to making records. (JJ)