By Daniel Garrett
Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest
Produced and Engineered by Chris Taylor
Warp Records, 2009
It is truly remarkable music that Daniel Rossen, Ed Droste, Christopher Bear, and Chris Taylor have made as Grizzly Bear and it is music that might have been dismissed in an earlier age. Featuring sensitive male voices, high-voiced harmonies, and a variety of music—with guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, woodwind instruments, and electronics; and sometimes creating a sound that independent rock listeners would admire and other times recalling an older jazzy rock not unlike Steely Dan, as well as variations of elaborately composed and experimental music—the music album Veckatimest by the band Grizzly Bear does not seem like music intended to fill a contemporary commercial niche. It is interesting how the borders of understanding contract and expand; interesting to think that if Grizzly Bear’s work had been produced in an earlier time it might have been seen as a failure of creativity, an inability to master conventional forms, rather than a success of creativity, the ability to create something new: in one age, people do not understand divergence from convention and in another age they do understand it and welcome it.
In the song “Southern Point,” quiet drumming, a light male voice, with an aura of a nearly tropical relaxation (“our haven on the southern point is calling us”), then a quickening beat, correspond to words of assurance, of personal safety (“I’ll return to you”); and then there is a scraping, washing sound, before a resurgence of something nearly as tranquil as the song’s beginning, but it is not, then, an uncomplicated tranquility. There is a sense of drama, of tension, with differing rhythms. The boyishly ethereal harmonies in “Two Weeks” remind me of the Beach Boys, a music group that captured the sunny optimism that many Americans hoped (and worked) to embody, an optimism that rarely comes naturally to anyone who is honest or intelligent; an optimism, when achieved, that is as wondrous as a state of grace. The different musical instruments in “All We Ask” are allowed independence, their own space; and the melody, except near the end, is less noticeable than the changing structure of the song, which seems organized by rhythms, tempos, and tones.
Listening to “Fine for Now,” a song that may be about time, conformity, and insecurity, I am inclined to describe the singer’s voice as mellow and expressive, but what does it express? The voice, while unique, does not seem particularly personal: the emotions and ideas suggested could belong to anyone. The jazz-influenced percussion, with each beat (or group of beats) seeming to exist on its own (or their own), rather than the linear, pounding beat prevalent in much of rock music, adds to the sense of flexibility, of a lack of confinement to a particular perspective. Yet, rock music instrumentation—the guitars and the kind of drum used—is what keeps the music of Grizzly Bear in the rock mode, although one hears European classical and American experimental music as influences too. However, the heavy simplicity of the beat and how the harmonies seem separate from that beat in the Grizzly Bear song “Cheerleader” does remind me of 1960s rock; and again, there is something charming and impersonal about the sound (the lyrics do not help: “Let it go, it doesn’t mean a thing. Chance and sow, nothing changing.”). In “Dory,” despite the allusion to trouble, the singer’s voice seems attached to eyes and mind rather than a vibrant body; and that fits a music of fragments and influences, of ideas and modulating tones. Some of the lyric repetition can call to mind church liturgy, hymns—or idiotic babbling.
An oddity of Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest album is that one song does not seem to feed into the next. While some of the songs may share characteristics, they do seem to stand alone; and that keeps one’s attention up but one does not relax into the music the way one might prefer. Further, the singer’s voice is buried within contrasting sounds in “Ready, Able,” like the soundtrack to an otherwise silent argument; and in “About Face” the drama in the music seems structural rather than emotional, as with “Hold Still,” which focuses on the guitar as much as any singing. The singing reflects thought rather than conversation in “While You Wait for Others,” and the harmonies rise and repeat for the sake of their own beauty. There is an orchestral heft to “I Live with You.” And, with piano and choir, as well as possible irony, the album ends with a song called “Foreground,” which contains these lines: “Work out another rift. Something is muffled.”
Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana and a longtime resident of New York, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist Changing Men, founded the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner, Edward Bannister, and Reginald Madison for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and American Book Review, and about international film for Offscreen and Cinetext, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. He has been working on a fiction project, A Stranger on Earth. Daniel Garrett’s web log at Blogger.com, focused on culture and society, is called “City and Country, Boy and Man.” His e-mail addresses are D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com and firstname.lastname@example.org