Today was one of those weird late Spring/almost Summer days where it was gray, overcast, and extremely humid yet it never rained. Driving home with my windows down, the white cottonwood fluff was blowing around in the wind creating a surreal almost-snowstorm look to the world. Underneath all of this rides the notion that I'll be moving into my own place in about week, all those last minute details and things roiling underneath the surface. And with all of this--the odd weather, the dramatic life change--going on, all I can think about is how damned good the new Grizzly Bear album is.
With their new album, Grizzly Bear have thrown their hat into the ring for the running of "best album of the year." Yes, I've only been listening to it for two days now and I'm already saying that and 2009's music season is just warming up, too. As usual, most of the music releases I'm looking forward to seem to be in the second half of the year. True, 2009 got off to a great start with Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion, but Veckatimest feels like the true start of a gradual flood of stuff I've been looking forward to and things I don't expect but will probably astound me. Yet one must live in the moment, and in this moment, I find Veckatimest to be an astonishingly rich achievement.
Understand that I loved Yellow House but for as good as it was, Grizzly Bear have with this release issued their first unqualified masterpiece. Yellow House is an incredible, fascinating album, but you really have to be in a certain mood for it. Not so for Veckatimest, a brilliant batch of songs that requires as much patience as Yellow House but who's rewards run, arguably, much deeper. I went through a strange initial period of this album quite similar to the one I went through with the aforementioned Animal Collective album. At first I was ambivalent and mostly unimpressed; only a few songs grabbed me and the rest seemed strange, intricate beasts that were hard to nail down. Strange that with their 2009 albums, both Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective released enjoyable, less experimental albums that still, somehow, require a few listens to comprehend.
This lack of immediacy isn't a bad thing. On Veckatimest, 'Two Weeks' will likely be the initial hook that keeps you coming back; it's like a Rosetta's Stone that allows you to slowly unravel and adore the rest of the album. See, the problem people are going to have with this album is that, while it's the most 'pop' thing Grizzly Bear have done, they never seem to go for the obvious, whether it's a lazy lyric or easy song structure. Once this music winds its way into you and you've learned the twists and turns, they become delightful nuggets of discovery.
Grizzly Bear's Friend EP approximated their live sound, with that incredible reverb laden, chunky guitar sound remaking some of the songs from the band's first two albums. On Veckatimest that is fully explored alongside the familiar dreamy indie-folk/psych-folk atmospheres and melodies, as well as new orchestral tinged textures and sturdier, more emphatic drum beats. Veckatimest manages to sound of a singular whole and yet quite distinct from song to song, always offering up new ideas and unpredictable hooks, melodies, and sounds. 'Cheerleader' starts off sounding a bit like the drum part from Portishead's 'Magic Doors' before murking about in a dreamy haze that never seems to go anywhere yet offers plenty of sonic details and twists on headphone listens. 'Dory' sails in with a haunting vocal intro before carousing about with an acoustic guitar section full of imaginative lyrical imagery. The most-mentioned-song-in-this-review 'Two Weeks' offers up Grizzly Bear's take on R&B/soul, and 'All We Ask' is the sort of song that gets more impressive with each listen, the ending handclaps enhanced section punctuating an already fine tune.
The band has also damn near perfected their approach to vocals, making great use of close, Brian Wilson-esque harmonies as well as focusing on either the majestic, melancholic tones of Ed Droste or the more straightforward and nasally Daniel Rossen. As with the two main forces on Wolf Parade's At Mount Zoomer, who put in career highs with songs there, both of Grizzly Bear's singers turn in brilliant performances that belong entirely to them (the Droste masterpiece 'Two Weeks' is inarguably one of the 2009's best songs, while Rossen goes to bat much more often and always hits homers, of which 'While You Wait For The Others' is the highlight) but still unselfishly support each other. 'Hold Still' may have Rossen handling the lead vocals, but his harmonies with Droste (and the rest of the band) are, yes, beautiful.
By now you've likely heard that this album was named after an uninhabitated island near Massachusetts. That makes sense to me because there's a spooky mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar to this album, something dreamy yet not as sleepy as Yellow House was. Much as Pink Floyd famously 'played' at Pompeii, Grizzly Bear could fill Veckatimest with music, too. This is an album that engages you enough at first to keep you coming back until the full picture is revealed. The sort of album that you'll find hard to describe and recommend without resorting to generic, positive adjectives. It defies easy categorization as much as it does easy description. One of 2009's must hears.