Sorry to get all 'New Journalism' on you, but I've been going through a period of writer's block for the past few months. It's mostly been affecting my fiction output, but right now I find myself yet again spending a drowsy afternoon trying desperately to decide what to write. Which ended up working nicely, because Yellow House is a perfect album for drowsy afternoons.
It's not that this album lacks dynamics, or plays out like a leisurely summer rainstorm, all gentle-white-noise washing out from the speakers and caressing your ear drums. No, it's more that somewhere along the line I end up categorizing most albums as belonging to a specific time of day, or a specific emotional mindset, or what have you. I can't, for instance, listen to The Marble Index by Nico unless I'm vaguely depressed, in a catatonic kind of way, and have my shades drawn. I can't listen to Architecture In Helsinki unless I'm hopped up on caffeine and/or something diabetes inducing, like a mound of Pixie stick powder large enough to rival the final scene of Scarface. But I digress. Even the songs on Yellow House that rouse themselves above a drowsy-afternoon-energy-level don't shock the listener into hypnagogic jerks, unlike, say, almost every post-rock album ever recorded. You're sailing along nicely on marshmallow boats of clipped snare drums, ponderous guitars, and bathysphere deep bass when the band decides to hit a crescendo or a wall of noise suddenly arrives as if spun loose from a Lightning Bolt album. Meanwhile, Yellow House offers logical spikes, more akin to neighbors slamming their car doors down the block while your left arm dangles off the couch or your roommate arriving home, realizing you're half-asleep, and trying to very quietly sneak past without disturbing you.
Were I hard pressed to describe Grizzly Bear's music, I would have to resort to the lazy 'psych-folk' genre. Primarily acoustic instrument based, but played in a dreamy/psychedelic fashion. The problem is that the 'psych-folk' genre encompasses such disparate, modern-day musicians as Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, and Animal Collective. Problematically, only Sung Tongs by the latter could be considered 'psych-folk', maybe Campfire Songs, too, but whatever. The point is that Yellow House has a similar reverential attitude toward reverb, repetitive acoustic guitar, and pastoral-but-not-honky-tonky-country-kind-of-pastoral atmospherics. The album also reminds me of the post-rock-by-way-of-acoustic-instruments vibe that Roots and Crowns by Califone gives off.
Yellow House is the kind of album you'll need to spend some time with before it truly engrosses you. The problem with albums like this--of the drowsy afternoon breed in total, actually--is that a full accounting of their strengths can only be calculated while your energy level synchs up. As I said earlier, it's not that Yellow House is a slow IV drip of an album, but it doesn't have enough quick, punchy dynamic songs to catch a cursory listener's ear. Spend a drowsy afternoon or two listening to the full album (don't feel bad if you fall asleep for awhile, it's part of the charm) and its deliberate, thoughtful pacing and restraint will blossom. 'On A Neck, On A Spit', the best example of what I mean, initially seems a schizophrenic work that gets markedly better in its second half where the tempo picks up and we are catapulted into a maximalist groove, with gushing walls of sound and vocal choruses of the "oooohhhhh----ahhhhh"-ish sort. I would also point to the obvious 'Knife', a song which the listener is immediately drawn into, with its big vocals and almost shoegazer-esque guitar soundscapes before the minute-and-a-half outro of cinematic piano and clattering percussion. Lest I forget the drowsy bulk of the album, which I've been mumbling about all along: the haunting chill of 'Central And Remote', the whistle-fortified vocal harmonics of 'Plans', and the aptly named 'Lullabye', which, though it is the second song, establishes the emotional and energy-level status quo for the remainder of the album.
Frankly I think a lot of people were mystified as to why this album was getting such praise two years ago. It is one of those releases that most people are going to listen to once or twice, pick out the obvious, more direct songs, discard everything else, and wonder why the rest of us are so in love with the whole package. In this miss-matched era of MetaCritic scores determining what music fans go after and those people downloading ten albums at a time and only giving two of those a chance because they immediately gratify, Yellow House is doomed to failure. Those of us willing to give albums like this a chance will be writing dazzled reviews, reviews that are then read by puzzled listeners who hear a stray track from poor Grizzly Bear on an iTunes shuffle in between, say, Vampire Weekend and the Hold Steady. But, if you're like me, you spend a lot of drowsy afternoons bored and alone, and Yellow House is a perfect complement for it.