But this is Grizzly Bear, and despite an increased confidence in their pop sensibilities and an overall strengthening of melodies, they’re still meanderers at heart. Highlights abound, but Veckatimest does sound as though it was conceived as a whole piece, and one must consider both the overall structure and the connective tissue between the abundant highlights to judge it a success. Save “Cheerleader” and the lilting “Ready, Able”, the stretch between “Fine for Now” and “While You Wait” wanders a bit; certain moments, like Rossen’s “swim around like two dories” line and the wispy, wheezing “About Face”, hit harder than others. But you’ll be looking for a while to find anybody who thinks the center of Veckatimest is as strong as the stuff surrounding it.
Beyond irking folks predisposed to slagging off intricate and, yeah, “sophisticated” music like this– you stay punk, I’mma stay fascinated– this trip down yonder to the minor key will doubtless be the big complaint about Veckatimest. But really, couldn’t we say the same about Yellow House? I mean, there’s some jam in between “Knife” and “On a Neck, On a Spit”, but there’s an awful lot of wide-open spaces and deliberate left turns in there, too. Yellow House was not a record defined so much by its two or three big numbers as it was by the slightly haunting impression it left when you played it front to back; it sounded deconstructed, whereas Veckatimest feels built brick-by-brick. As I mentioned, Veckatimest handily beats Yellow House in the bangers department, and while you’re not gonna hear “Two Weeks” on any radio station that isn’t already playing Ted Leo, there is something prim and proper about the record. Yet the pop moments on Veckatimest feel even bigger after the slight deviation at its core; surrounded by a few sour notes and sidesteps, “Cheerleader” and “Ready, Able” becomes that much stronger, and even the less effective numbers (“Hold Still”, “Fine for Now”) seem only to cower a smidge as a result of the staggering heights they’re placed next to. Out of context, they’re every bit as good as the more sinewy stuff that wove Yellow House together.
I walked into Grizzly Bear’s much-lauded set at the church down at SXSW this year a skeptic and came out a convert; I knew what a powerful live band they could be, having seen ’em twice before, but my fear about flatlining and my initial (and incorrect) impressions based on the Veckatimest leak had me convinced I’d get my “Knife” and my “Two Weeks” and then perhaps a very welcome nap. What I got instead was as great a testament to band democracy as I’ve seen onstage; these new tunes require a terrific amount of concentration and skill to pull off in that setting, and any band whose sprightliest number (“On a Neck”, still) sounds like half a ragtime had to work awfully hard to win me over after I’d spent the prior eight hours replacing beer-sweat with more beer. Yeah, Veckatimest sounds worked-over, but in the best of ways; carefully embellished, stripped bare when applicable, full of the joy of sounds colliding with other sounds. Grizzly Bear was once Ed Droste’s band, but no longer; it’s a family affair, and only four guys so completely serious about music-making could come together to make an album this labor-intensive sound so airy, so natural.