Grizzly Bear – Yellow House

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I think the band had decided on the album’s name and cover and the general aesthetic of the music—Acoustic ambience! Reverberating resplendence!—before getting to work on the music itself.

It just feels like cottage music, both in the sense that they made this in a cottage and they want people to hear it in a cottage. You know, the sort with a lot of drugs and sunshine being passed around. And if I’ve ever said something on a music site that the rest of the world hasn’t heard of but bears repeating—“Saying that the music sounds better high is not a compliment. It’s actually the complete opposite, as insulting as saying ‘I’d only have sex with her if I were drunk.’” For the record, during the beginning of a terrible trip on hallucinogens, I decided to throw on “Knife” for whatever reason, and it was as spooky as the title suggested, especially Chris Taylor’s wailings, so spooky, in fact, that I couldn’t bear to finish it. But that’s one song out of the ten, and it’s also the only (if I were being extremely generous, maybe one of two) cut(s) that matches the great stuff from later in their discography (uncoincidentally, it’s the only song from their pre-Veckatimest days that kicks around in their post-Shields live sets).

With my first ten or so listens to the album in full, I had thought that “Knife” was only different because of its inherently psychedelic sound. This one swirls and everything else remains woefully static. However, further listens revealed more: “Knife” both benefits from having the best melody on the album as well as changing constantly. You could practically break it down into clear sections; Christopher Bear provides a nice clean break at the 2:05 mark for the song’s—hmmm—bridge, we’ll call it, when he starts counting out the beat (simple, but effective), tremolo guitar picks that sound like lightning at the 3:07 mark and then an ambient outro starting at the 3:40 mark. “Easier,” the other track I would give clear praise to, sort of does the same thing. It opens with brief flutes and then a piano, both instruments barely materializing at all, before the song shifts gears and becomes the only noticeable harmonic exercise on the album (interesting, since they’re practically known for their harmonies. Which begs the question, if Yellow House doesn’t have harmonies, what does it have?). It’s almost as if the band were bubbling with so many ideas with these two tracks and impressively, managed to capture all of them.

Elsewhere, these cars are striving greatness which is unfortunately more than their still amateur songwriting will allow. “Lullabye” (cute title) opens with a brief radio passage, and despite it lasting mere seconds, I’m actively bothered by it. Why? It’s because other bands (The Cure on “Pornography” and Radiohead on live versions of “The National Anthem”) did it before, but the difference is, they actually used it for an effect (both passages sound dark, but the Cure capitalized on its dark and incoherent sound, while Radiohead needed some way of filling in for a whole jazz orchestration that they had in studio. From there, it’s a nice acoustic guitar and vocal thing (exciting description, isn’t it). The only thing separating this, from say, the other acoustic guitar and vocal things on the album (practically all of them, barring the ones I’ve already mentioned) is that this one is in waltz-form. Did I mention the lyrics on this album don’t mean a damn thing? The lyrics on this album don’t mean a damn thing, and when I read “Glass of gin and a folding chair / Sitting out by the wading pool, chlorine blue / Rush of wind passing over me,” it’s evidence to my whole cottage bit at the start of this review. And there’s no cohesion, because those lyrics turn into, “Restless nights” (which suggests depression, I guess), followed by “Chin up, cheer up” (which makes sense, because if you’re depressed, you want to cheer up), followed by “My love’s another kind” (wait—what? I thought you were in a cottage. And then you were depressed. And then you were happy. How did love come into the equation?). I’m being harsh, I guess, because the infinitely bigger problem with “Lullabye” is how it morphs into near-3 minutes of sludge.

“Little Brother” is just as guilty; the song effectively ends at the 4:55 mark, and the bastards add a coda practically revolving around recorded birds for us. The only time a recorded bird used for musical purposes has ever been okay was on “Blackbird,” and even then it was cheesy stuff. But these songs still get a pass from me because they’re at least melodic enough that I don’t mind listening to them. The album really hits its nadir on the second side; “Marla”’s only redeeming factor seems to be fact that it was written by Droste’s aunt in the 1930’s and fleshed out by the band seventy years later. Does that exempt it from criticism? Because the song basically makes a mattress out of the easiest of a Chopin waltz and some unmelodic vocals are thrown on top of it. 5 minutes? Get out of here. Meanwhile, as you should already know by now, you should probably avoid the word “Reprise” any time it comes on an album. This one just takes the “My love’s another kind” bit from “Lullabye” and hurls it at us in a nauseating stop-start motion.

“Central and Remote” and “On A Neck, On A Spit” are solid. “Colorado” too, if it were shortened a bit. If you are in the mood for some acoustic guitar and vocal stuff, might I suggest you venture into 60’s psychedelic folk? You’d get more bang for your buck there.

B+ (the “+” is for “Knife”)

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