Friday, May 29, 2009

Weekly Album Review: Why Are We at Veckatimest?

In 1966, Norman Mailer used the threadbare plot of a coming-of-age Alaskan bear hunt as an allegorical subtext for the Vietnam War. The results – nay, the whole concept – was incredibly disingenuous, but it was probably his last great work of fiction, if only for the oblique but engaging title (Why Are We In Vietnam?). With that in mind, seeing as every halfwit of a certain socio-cultural stratum (myself included) has attempted to dissect, deconstruct, criticize, and New Historicize Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest with faux-plenary authority in the intervening months since Ed Droste’s frantic Tweet about the album leak, I felt that a Maileresque pastiche may be in order when the day of reckoning (viz. writing my review of the much-ballyhooed “album of the year”) came to pass. But then again, there are plenty of other venues for such a yarn – you, dear reader, are probably looking for some honest divagations about this Brooklyn band’s breakthrough album, and why they may or may not deserve premium space in your Nano, and why the gnomically hermetic, NYU sheepskin-holding duo of Messrs. Droste and Taylor deserve to be tithed your hard-earned CUNY Work Study dollars when forms of entertainment that are more valuable (I’m thinking $9.95 copies of The 400 Blows at the Virgin Megastore blowout sale) and less specious are ripe for the taking.

Grizzly Bear are quite anomalous in the underground Brooklyn indie rock scene that has coalesced into a national phenomenon over the past seven years or so. Like most of their peers, they are carpetbaggers from various hinterlands in the American expanse and thus of an entirely different mentality than the average native New Yorker (Ed really, really likes his nabe of contemporary Williamsburg); unlike most of their confederates, they are more beholden to the lambent sounds of the psychedelic Beach Boys than Glenn Branca’s sonic astringencies. If Oneida and Parts & Labor are the Godards and Truffauts of this musical equivalent of a cul de sac transposed upon urban decay – black and white, stylistically reductive, Gitantes and Anna Karina circa Alphaville – Grizzly Bear immediately evoke Bresson’s equivocal Catholic asceticism in their unceasing search for love.

A gay sensibility informs much of their oeuvre (leader Droste is openly gay), and one can’t help but to think of Langston Hughes’s more ambiguous verse when hearing the mantra-like songs of their previous album, Yellow House, which may as well have been subtitled “’I, Too’ for the Digital Generation”. Destroyed but not defeated, Droste inadvertently painted a spellbindingly mimetic portrait of urban gay life on that album that also managed to be touching in its universality. There was a reason why Veckatimest so anticipated – give these guys some time to actually congeal, the rationale was, and these ruffians could be indie’s tardy answer to the Beatles.

Without descending into the ad hominem and vaguely homophobic catcalls of (think “eunuch choirboys”), nor the hyperbole of the indie press, it can be safely asserted that Veckatimest is a passable pop album that I will probably play a couple of times every month in the foreseeable future – not the Sgt. Pepper’s of the vanquished Obama revolution, thank you very much. In an interview some months back, Droste assured me that Veckatimest would be even more experimental than its declamatory predecessor, with big, clangorous drums and more poetic lyrics. The drums are hardly stadium-sized, thank heavens, but their increased presence makes for a facile and superfluous change that only detracts from the band’s fragile melodies. A foray into John Martyn/David Crosby-style folk-jazz, the opening “Southern Point”, is the album’s most successful track, in part because it finds them amenable to experimenting in hitherto foreign styles. The rest – from the soon-to-be-hit “Two Weeks” to the Spectorian “Cheerleader”, resplendent with backing vocals from the Brooklyn Youth Choir – is pure regurgitation, Yellow House with a more diverse palette of instruments, the true poesis of a quavering voice submerged in the flotsam of retro-Seventies production.

As avowed fans of Radiohead, Droste and company should have known that they were in a rarefied position after the critical and limited commercial success of Yellow House, much as the former band was after The Bends. Instead of taking their sound into an even more recondite direction and laughing their way to the Greenpoint Savings Bank, Veckatimest is a gluttonous road to avarice, bombast, and Jermaine Clement’s Omnichord collection. While it’s difficult not to find it enrapturing while sipping your morning tea and reading the Times, one wonders if the critics will retract their “all time classic” pronouncements over the ensuing years.

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