We all know the moment. You’re listening to a new album for the first time, maybe you’ve already given it a few casual listens but haven’t really focused on it with your mind’s ear. Maybe you’ve have, but you haven’t yet heard that thing you look for in your music, that thing that hits your sweetspot and goes on rubbing it with a supple command. And you know instantly, then, that this album, whatever it may be, is going to rise to the upper echelons, become one of your records. Will provide the soundtrack to a period, a time in your life, however brief.
The song that hooked me on Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest in this way is track seven: “Ready, Able.” I’d been given the album in March by my friend Rob as an advance download. I didn’t even realize it wasn’t going to be released until late May. I didn’t get around to listening to it until sometime in April/May. I remember where I was exactly when the levee broke: I’d been driving around Los Angeles running errands. I’d just left the Beverly Center (a local mall familiar to anyone who’s ever seen Volcano) and was driving towards home down San Vicente. The track opened with a quick, taunting staccato guitar riff, like an 80s version of a 50s rock and roll song, a la Pat Benatar or Joan Jett. Okay. But then over that a gorgeous, slightly androgynous male voice began to sing a plaintive love song, full of wails and effects-laden echoes and soaring, aching choruses. The dichotomy was irresistible. I maneuvered through stop and go traffic fraught with anticipation…
At the 1:46 mark, I was blown away. Suddenly the song escaped its previous structure like a rocketship surging away from its temporary scaffolding. As the vocals blurred and swirled down the drain into a keyboard-twinkling echolalia urged on by swelling strings, a guitar riff struck like a sudden dagger to the heart, keying an entirely new mood—an urgent, dramatic, mysterious—like two rival Cold War spies fucking each other for information, knowing the tryst will end in one another’s deaths. It barely survives the gambit, but comes out on the other end in an aching minor cataclysm of naked distorted guitar, repeated Boy George-style choruses and slurred vocals and finally, an equanimous, ruminating bass line. It’s an entire human relationship encapsulated in one summer pop song. All the passion, mistrust, and shimmering drama fused into an unpredictable, unforgettable final act.
Sara said it best, I think. Veckatimest reminds one of many kinds of music from song to song (specifically, Talking Heads, David Byrne, Culture Club, Simply Red, Steely Dan) but it’s never derivative. Instead of hearing Grizzly Bear rip off those earlier artists, the effect you get is imagining those singers covering Grizzly Bear material. It manages to conjure up your favorite forgotten music while creating something gripping, new and essential.
I guess if I was going to pick one album that, from start to finish, it really reminds me of it would have to be King Crimson’s Islands (look for an upcoming pairing of that one here later this summer), with its complex, mannered jazz structures and instruments; its classical flourishes and arrangements—youth choir, orchestral strings, etc; its dense songwriting, and its ephemeral, shape-shifting vocals and harmonies, all glossing beautifully and poignantly over what may be finally quite dark, scabrous material. Perhaps this comparison is apt because the koanic title Veckatimest actually refers to a small uninhabited island off the coast of Massachusetts where the lead singer grew up.
What wild things lurk in small, fertile places? Clearly that unadulterated island of the mind remains vibrant, lush and teeming in the stony straits of Brooklyn. Seek out Veckatimest, inarguably the soundtrack to Summer, 2009. What trip will it take you on?
GRIZZLY BEAR VECKATIMEST, 2009, Warp Records Limited