rizzly Bear’s woozy, sea-drunk folk has been skirting the ‘freak-folk’ line since their debut, Horn of Plenty, in late 2004. But where Devendra, Animal Collective, and company live up to the oddity implied by the tag, at least musically, Grizzly Bear has always sounded like a slightly less deranged crew of roustabouts, one whose three day sleep of hair may just be the weirdest thing about them. I’d guess they take their coffee black and their cereal wet. They owe as much to traditional psychedelic music as to the hirsute escapism of their genre-mates, but there’s an ascetic lividity to their spirituality that gives these often rough, imperfect gems their hymnal quality.
Their songs are smothered in gushes of sound and atmosphere; they take their time in coming to the heart of the matter, allowing the tracks to simmer and smoke before they fire. Near-silence, a rough-note, an overly eager moment in a spot of quiet comes together perfectly, beautifully awkward. It’s this concentration on the long-form over the short, which comes off at first listen as a collection of songs with no real center-point—no moment where the album finds definition as a whole—which may lead critics to write it off as more carelessly tuned, formless indie wankery. But like a precisely stacked pile of kindling, all the twigs and the odd pieces of dry wood have to hold their place for the rest to catch.
No longer just the effort of singer/songwriter Edward Droste, Grizzly Bear’s now a foursome, and the rest of the band puts some shadow in his sketches. Though Yellow House—recorded in a house off Cape Cod, one which, yes, just happens to be yellow—maintains their debut’s DIY aesthetic, its blood is thicker, with plenty of strings, subtle electronic flourishes, and a more rhythmic base. The result is a prodigious leap for the band, combining their deft sense of atmosphere with a renewed attention to songcraft and, perhaps more importantly, album-craft. After all, Yellow House is more an astounding record than an astonishing set of songs, which was how Horn of Plenty ultimately sounded. For every “Easier,” with its sleepy background chorus, marching drums, and ambergris quiet, there’s the wavering, closed-door singalong of “Lullabye.” For every soaring gust like “Knife” or “Central Remote,” two of the album’s few songs that adhere to a traditional sense of melody and motion, there’s a shaky, flickering nod to the nod like “Little Brother,” with its whistling, stumbling drums, and the ocean-borne sickness of its progress.
Grizzly Bear pair the dizzying with the clairvoyant, and back the mellow moments of prayer with deafening, prodigal excess. Tracks take on several different moods, often through dogleg turns in pace, without noticing the shift. “Marla,” perhaps the album’s most stunning moment, was actually penned by Droste’s great-aunt in the thirties; Grizzly Bear shape it into a waltz whispered in the mire, a crude fever of strings (courtesy of Final Fantasy), piano, and Droste’s coy vocals. It’s drugged and deprived of sense, a mystery of ten million parts and too many characters with too few faces. But it’s addictive, absolutely maddening, like a tune whistled by the straitjacketed in the cinderblock hole, with a melody that wormholes your dreams. When followed by the stubby guitars of “On a Neck, On a Spit,” a barrel-leaping trot by comparison, the two form a seemingly senseless couplet whose connection, though tenuous, is oddly necessary for the album’s late progress. Elsewhere, the mushroomed layering of “Reprise,” finds purpose in its end, giving out to the reverbed piano and staccato effects of “Colorado,” the album’s closer. Fittingly, Grizzly Bear founds an irresolute, unnavigable place in the space of ten songs: laying to rest in the canyon after taking shape in a sea of weeds. A masterful record from a yellow house where every bit of timber is damp and ready to take fire.