Much as I'd like to live in a world without review scores, having to put a numeric or symbolic score on something certainly affects how I feel about it. I prefer the ubiquitous five star scale, with no half stars in between. It does tend to de-value that five star rating, sure, but of all the various ones I've encountered, it seems the most handy for forcing people to be both honest and succinct. Review systems like Pitchfork's seem pointlessly granular. What, really, is the difference between a 3.5 and a 3.6, if you're already that low on the scale? Then again, the classic thumbs up/down scale of Siskel & Ebert feels almost like an afterthought. Even if a movie got two thumbs up, it wasn't guaranteed to be a masterpiece; without the context of what they had to say about it, or even which person said what, it always struck me as a really weak recommendation. But even though most people who read reviews simply skim and/or skip to the score, I think scores are useful. Even for the reviewer, since they make you really consider how strongly you feel about something and why.
I promise I'll get to In Ear Park, but indulge me for a bit longer. You see, this album has been doing a number on me for awhile now. It's rare that I struggle with what score I'm going to give something. Typically, the hard part for me is in going through the following considerations: 1) do I really need to write a review at all? 2) what do I think/feel about it, and why? 3) what is the most interesting and/or entertaining way of expressing those thoughts/feelings? I've wanted to write a review of In Ear Park for about a year or so, but other things keep coming up that seem more worthy of my time and effort. Well, that and I'm not sure how to score it. This is the one time I wish I could squeeze a half star unto my score like the last bit of toothpaste out of a tube. But I can't, and won't. So, yes, I give In Ear Park four stars.
And you know what? There's no shame in four stars. It is literally above average! But the immediate question becomes, "why not five stars?" What is "wrong" with In Ear Park that I would deduct a star? This is the wrong way of going about scores, though. Albums don't start off with five stars and lose them as I find things I don't like. Rather, it's an aggregate of various factors that compel me to spit out a score and an explanation of it.
And you know what? My issue with In Ear Park is that I wish I could give it three-and-a-half stars.
I don't like to think of Department Of Eagles as a side project to Grizzly Bear, since they existed before Daniel Rossen joined that better known band. To me, Department Of Eagles is a kind of alternate reality, less grandiose version of Grizzly Bear. Rossen's songs on In Ear Park do bear a close resemblance to his contributions to Yellow House, the Friend EP, and Veckatimest; in fact, you can hear certain stylistic and sonic influences onVeckatimest. But there's an intimacy and "no one's looking" free-wheeling flow to In Ear Park that makes it ultimately unique and not just a Grizzly Bear sound-a-like. Fred Nicolaus's two songs help its uniqueness the most, since they have a wide eyed, youthful playfulness that reminds me of Joanna Newsom's more whimsical material. The immediately great 'Teenagers' pairs a carousing piano line to a deceptively catchy melody, but, like his other contribution, 'Classical Records', his uncertain, weak vocals are nearly overwhelmed by the production and arrangements. Meanwhile, Rossen delivers some of his best material with the whipcrack clap beats and "ooh"ing backing vocals of 'No One Does It Like You', and 'Floating On The Lehigh's by turns gentle, bracing, and majestic journey through moods.
"Ultimately unique" as In Ear Park may be, it also has the feeling of Rossen stretching some ideas too thin. As I said before, some similar ideas and sounds appear in better forms on Grizzly Bear albums. 'Phantom Other' and 'Balmy Night' in particular sound like Veckatimest and Yellow House b-sides, respectively (yes, I know this album came out before Veckatimest, but bear with me). In Ear Park's second half is also poorly paced, since it feels like it's ending on three separate occasions. 'Floating On The Lehigh', 'Waves Of Rye', and 'Herring Bone' all have that "final song on an album" mood to them, but then it actually ends with the anti-climactic 'Balmy Night.' Albums can end in all sorts of ways, but I always find 'Balmy Night' particularly unsatisfying and abrupt, and this is only compounded by how In Ear Park has seemed to be wrapping up three times before this with much more definitively "final" songs.
While I do think more kindly of In Ear Park when thinking about it after the fact, it's one of those quintessentially four star albums that falters a bit while I'm listening to it and concentrating. It's uneven, sure, but it's more than that: it's the feeling of recycled ideas from chronologically earlier and at-the-time-still-coming Grizzly Bear albums; the weak vocals of Nicolaus and overactive arrangements on his songs; the poorly paced second half. Side project or "alternate reality, less grandiose version" of Grizzly Bear that Department Of Eagles may be, it does end up creating its own feel and sense of two friends making some pretty good music while not many people are paying attention. Just don't go into it expecting something as consistent and brilliant as Veckatimest.
4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5