Ever since folk tropes and instrumentation started to be incorporated back into acceptable forms of hip popular music around the turn of the millennium, new acts have been rising up and taking these forms in new directions. Grizzly Bear’s second album, Yellow House, finds the Brooklyn band — now expanded to a quartet from its beginnings as a solo vehicle for singer/songwriter Edward Droste — pushing the boundaries in some beguiling and beautiful ways.
With its lush harmonies, creative electronic augmentations and campfire vibe, perhaps the closest comparison is to Animal Collective’s 2004 masterpiece Sung Tongs. Whereas that album came across as something firmly rooted in the avant-garde that revealed its pop roots and catchy hooks after a few listens, Yellow House does quite the opposite; what sounds at first like an assured and intelligent pop record, eventually, on deeper listening, begins to open out into some strange and unsettling terrain. It’s a stealthy, insidious record that creeps up on you and — just when you’re thinking of moving onto something a little more challenging — sends out curious barbs that hook you back for one more spin.
A lot of the drama in these 10 songs comes from a constant tension between intimate, acoustic simplicity and echoing, epic production — like Devendra Banhart and Mercury Rev duking it out for supremacy over every track. Almost every number manages to cram in multiple ideas, stretching the songs out into mini-suites that incorporate enough material to fill half an album by a less imaginative band … and still manage to come in at around the five-minute mark each. Along the way, there are shades of pastoral Prog à la Gabriel-era Genesis, the twisted bubblegum pop of XTC and some Tom Waits-style down-at-heel exotica.
Perhaps, too, much of the quirky unfamiliarity of the songs can be traced to the unusual instrumentation: bucolic banjo jostling alongside strange, half-buried samples and field recordings; gauzy, multi-tracked vocals riding on strings and xylophones; and, on every tune, unconventional, creative percussion that avoids falling into the usual pop-rock idioms, favouring instead brushes, hand-claps, sighing cymbals and — when it feels right — big, cavernous drum beats that sound like they’ve been recorded on the rim of a volcano.
Such a wealth of material means that pretty much every tune contains at least one moment that could conceivably be called an album highlight. Nevertheless, some compositions stand out as being especially inspired. The opener, “Easier”, sounds like a particular type of heaven, with choirs of cherubs trading in their harps for banjos and singing nostalgic songs about past lives they were too young ever to have experienced. “Marla” is an odd, sepia-tinted waltz (based upon a tune written by Droste’s aunt in the 1930s) which suffers a gorgeous, seductive decay into sinister circus music for the mind, all rattling percussion and twisted, lunatic piano. “On a Neck, On a Spit” contains the most brilliantly simple declaration of affection heard in many years, a sweet refrain of “each day, I spend it with you / all my time I spend it with you”, that manages to convey love, lust, excitement, fear and resignation with breathtaking economy and joy. And then there’s the big, Prog finale to close the album: the epic “Colorado”, with it’s sweeping drums and piles of cumulo-nimbus vocals repeating the question, “What now?”
What indeed? This is a big album: big-hearted, epic in scope and ambition, emotionally all-encompassing and yet somehow personal and quietly moving. One gets the feeling that Grizzly Bear could conceivably make the album of the decade next time round.