Elusive beasts finally come out of the dark
Classifying Grizzly Bear alongside American folksters Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver is a common error – it’s like comparing the real-life Ursus arctos horribilis (that’s grizzly bear to you) with a runty park squirrel. In the years since Ed Droste released the lo-fi solo album ‘Horn Of Plenty’ under the Grizzly Bear name back in 2004, he and his band have proved themselves to be more than mere backwoods strummers. They’ve become favourites of Radiohead, won over the lantern-jawed hosts of the American late-night talk show circuit, played tonsil tennis with Feist and CSS on covers and reworkings EP ‘Friend’ and joined the bow ties of the Brooklyn Philharmonic for a one-off live collaboration.
Despite all this, a lack of any aesthetic gimmick – recording albums in log cabins, having beards – has caused Grizzly Bear to remain an elusive beast. But ‘Veckatimest’ is an album sure to flush them out of the bloggy undergrowth.
Their first record as a quartet, 2006’s ‘Yellow House’, was at times frustratingly inconclusive: on its closing track, ‘Colorado’, Droste and friends sang, over and over, “What now, what now, what now?” before lapsing into silence. Now, ‘Veckatimest’ answers the question. Opening track ‘Southern Point’ exhorts us to abandon the fug and rush of the city for the calm of the coast. A chorus of “in the air” is sung full-lunged as guitars rise like seagulls startled from their nests, and with this we take flight for a wonderful adventure.
‘Veckatimest’ is the Native American name of an uninhabited island near to the place where the album was written and recorded – Droste’s grandmother’s Cape Cod home. It’s a beautiful area of quiet, rocky creeks backed with lush green trees, yet this album doesn’t follow the American counter-cultural paradigm of the outsider in his rural escape, the one mined by Thoreau, Bon Iver and, more dramatically, the Unabomber. No: ‘Veckatimest’ is distinctly the work of New Yorkers – not scruffy Lower East Siders, or self-conscious Williamsburg hipsters, but the smart jazz set embarking on a creative caper up the coast.
Romantic and wistful, ‘Veckatimest’ draws you in like a collection of photos from a fondly remembered summer long ago. There’s an overarching mood that sits almost outside these 12 songs: sensitive without being fey, accomplished but not muso, elegant yet never overly stylised. That’s achieved not only by the deft production, but also through the four members sharing vocals to create a palette from which these colourful songs emerge. For Grizzly Bear, voice is as important as their impressive multi-instrumental skills. On ‘While We Wait For The Others’, guitars are secondary to vocal tics that burst into glorious chorus, like the appearance of the first cracks of sunrise over a distant ridgeline.
From the album’s delicate nuances emerges a deeply evocative experience. ‘Fine For Now’ has cymbals as waves on a deserted pebbly beach, while the gentle sunbeams-through-water guitar of ‘John Dory’ imagines the freedom of becoming the peculiar spined fish. One can sense the dusty corners and whispering floorboards of the grandmother’s house in the sparse, reflective ‘Hold Still’; in ‘All We Ask’
a sense of space almost as important as the ebb and flow of guitar informs the joyous chorus.
Even in its simplest moments – the effortless pop carried by the chiming single ‘Two Years’, or the piano and choral tearjerker of the summer’s farewell that is closer ‘Foreground’ – ‘Veckatimest’ requires the listener to make a studied and careful exploration. But for those patient enough to wait for this record to relinquish its quiet delights, the treasures waiting to be discovered it are rich indeed.