Thursday, August 20, 2009

A sad walk in the sun with Grizzly Bear

I discovered Grizzly Bear, and their latest album Veckatimest, on 3 PBS FM a few weeks ago. The opening track "Southern Point" is just a stunner - layers and layers of music and rhythms and instruments and voices, building upon each other in a way that just makes you stop whatever you're doing and listen to its sheer energy.

The album as a whole takes a lot of gentle twists and turns after that, and in some ways the whole thing reminds me of a piece of classical music that I have loved for a long time, even though the two things don't actually sound even remotely alike - a set of piano pieces by Ravel called Le Tombeau de Couperin (which means "At the tomb of Couperin").

The Ravel piece was written around 1915 partly in memory of some of Ravel's friends who had died in the war and partly as a tribute to the music of the French baroque. It's music full of sunlight, but sunlight that is now viewed through eyes darkened by sadness and loss.

And that's exactly how Veckatemist sounds. At first you might think some of its tracks are just dripping with sweetness ("Two Weeks", the album's second track, for example), with its soft ooh-aah vocal harmonies. But then when you listen a few more times (and if ever there was an album worth a lot of listens, it's this), and you hear the words, and you realise that these songs are all about a sunlight that has already begun to fade and that the music is taking you not for a happy frolick, but for a nostalgic walk, in it.

The songs are not exactly about loss - they're more about the tension between distance and closeness, space and place, longing to be home and longing to be free. And the music reflects it all so well - each song its own blend of simplicity and complexity: melodies that never quite do what you expect them to do, always hovering over, and entwining with, unique mixes of instruments and incredible shifts of beat and rhythm.

And, like so many good albums, there's an incredible sense of unity, and of a journey, here - with themes and hooks returning here and there (like, for example, "Our haven on the southern point is calling us" in the first track and then, "And the crowds that light the carnival are calling us home" on the third), reminding us that we're not just listening to a collection of songs here, but to a story. And it's a story which, though set in the sunlight, ends in the twilight, with the sadly beautiful "Foreground", which seems to find a sort of rest, a resolution, in its sadness - such a moving balance to all that vigour and excitement of the opening track.

Veckatemist is quickly becoming one of my favourite albums and Grizzly Bear, one of my favourite bands.

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