A band can have all the talent in the world, but if it can't break through its own majestic bubble to meet the rest of us at least halfway, all bets are off. It would be like putting a brilliant professor with no teaching skills in a classroom; that's just not going to be a fun class for anyone.
Grizzly Bear have earned critical praise in the indie rock world for their first full-length, 2006’s Yellow House. For me, Yellow House is pretty but boring. While original and technically impressive, it plays like a gorgeous haunted house without the thrills, and without lasting appeal.
On the other hand, Veckatimest is the dream sophomore breakout album we knew Grizzly Bear was capable of. In its entirety, Veckatimest glides along from break to bridge with Grizzly Bear’s trademark ghostly choirboy harmonies leading the way. What Yellow House lacked in structure, Veckatimest more than makes up for with songs that progress fluidly to treat the ear and imagination.
Album opener "Southern Point" starts out calmly enough before bursting out into a string-heavy high-speed chase of a chorus. "Two Weeks" follows, their first single and a standout track. "Would you always / Maybe sometimes / Make it easy? / Take your time," lead singer Edward Droste asks in the chorus over his band mates' jumping falsetto vocals and a beat that jumps with it.
Fun, driving drumbeats are central to many songs on Veckatimest including more uptempo tracks such as "Cheerleader," "While You Wait for the Others" (current favorite), "About Face" and "I Live with You," while "Ready, Able" slips into a dizzying rhythmic coma to end with Droste on repeat in a daze of guilt: “They go, we go / I want you to know / what I did, I did…." When the drums are subdued, the band ups the eerie factor Yellow House-style on tracks such as "Dory" and album closer "Foreground."
A sometimes dark, sometimes light, and always exciting ride, Veckatimest is Grizzly Bear's most accessible and versatile effort yet. While these guys will continue to excite critics, their odd brand of elaborate pop rock on Veckatimest will beckon to music fans from other walks to come see what the fuss is about. Most are bound to find something to like here.
Hutch Harriss, singer of the Thermals, said the band's new record is "a power pop album," but I'm not convinced. Written and recorded by Harriss and bassist Kathy Foster, Now We Can See (which was released in April on Kill Rock Stars) maintains the same blend of raw punk influences with energetic sing-a-long pop hooks that the Thermals have created on their other three albums: More Parts Per Million (2003), Fuck A (2004), and The Body, The Blood, The Machine (2006).
The Thermals, who formed in 2002 in Portland, Oregon, are also known for their intelligent, thought-provoking lyrics. The new record stays true to this form, but it's lyrical subject matter is vastly different from the last album, which told the vague story of a young couple fleeing the United States because of a fascist faux-Christian government.
When Hutch, Kathy, and their new drummer Westin Glass stopped by the Middle East during their spring tour, Hutch and Kathy took a few minutes to chat with WTBU about their new record, which tells the story of a recently deceased individual reflecting on life. We also talked about the Pacific Northwest and their new label.
On the new album, there's a change in the lyrical direction, from writing songs that are religious and political, to writing songs about death. What inspired that change?
Hutch: We just knew that we weren't going to do politics and religion on this record. We'd had enough of that after the last one. Just like the last record, it wasn't a pre-meditated thing [to write about one topic]. On the last record, I just wrote the lyrics to "Here's Your Future" first, and it opened this door. There seemed to be so many places to go with that theme. It became really fun to write all of these songs that fit together and had a story with a general arc in it. So then the same went for this record. I wrote the lyrics to "When We Were Alive" first and then that seemed like a good starting point, to stay not just from that perspective but from the perspective of someone who is dying or is dead, reflecting on life and the history of humans on earth.
Is one distinct person telling their stories throughout the album or are there different characters? Are they real people?
Hutch: It's different in every single one, and no, they're not real people. A lot of it is me just kind of like looking at different kinds of lives, and the de-evolution idea, from "When I Died," which was on our last record. It's someone whose tired of being human or ashamed of being human, and who wants to de-evolve. And then "We Were Sick" is from the point of view of a real fascist, kind of nasty politician , or someone (same as "When We Were Alive") who led the country into evil but has no apologies about it. So they're definitely all separate points of view.
In another interview you mentioned that you thought your first couple of albums sounded influenced by the Pacific Northwest. Do you think this album is also influenced by the Northwest?
Hutch: Yeah, I was just saying that again today. Especially the first record, it sounds very much like a northwest record. That's why working with Sub Pop was so perfect. It sounded like a record that would be released by Sub Pop. It fit in very well with where we were from and the whole scene.
What do you think it means to sound like the Northwest? What makes an album sound like it's from the Northwest?
Kathy: The Northwest is cold and rainy. People are inside a lot, and people make a lot of home recordings, so I feel like it's a lot of fuzzy, pop, home-recordings... [it's] lo-fi, moody, punk...those are the kinds of things I think about.
Hutch: I think of The Wipers. The Wipers are a Portland band we kind of sound like. We kind of sound like Nirvana, Built to Spill. These are all Northwest bands. All of the Kill Rock Star and K bands...there's definitely a link. It's all sort of melodic, but sort of scratchy at the same time, it's all lo-fi. Our first record I think is exactly all of these things.
Do you think it comes through on the new record too?
Hutch: I think the new record is a power pop record. That's what I've settled on for this record. ::laugher:: I don't know. It's not like we set out to consciously be a band that sounds like the Northwest. We just follow what we want to do.
Kathy: I think it still has those influences though. We still love all of those bands. We love the combination of distortion and rock, mixed with pop. So I think it still has that element to it.
You guys recently switched from Sub Pop to Kill Rock Stars. How's that going? Why'd you guys decide to change labels?
Kathy: Super awesome. We love Kill Rock Stars. It came up because our two-record contract was up with Sub Pop. Sub Pop wanted to keep working with us, but the contract was the same, like they would own our masters, and they wanted us for more than one record, and we really wanted to own our own masters, and to work one record at a time, so it just came down to those details. We loved working with Sub Pop and all the people there, but we decided that's not what we wanted. We wanted to just make a record without having a label in mind, but Kill Rock Stars approached us first, and they were super excited and really wanted to work with us. They had the best offer and agreed to all our terms. They're right in Portland now, they're a label we grew up with, and we really respect their ideals and how they run their business. Them being in Portland, just having that community in the city, is really great. We're such good friends with them, we go to their office all the time and we can just do things in person, and it feels really good. They're doing such a great job with our record.
The college music scene drives me insane sometimes. Getting beaten over the head with new releases by staple artists as a result of overblown hype rather than talent can get positively exhausting after a few short years. So how are we supposed to weed out the bands that actually deserve our praise, if, after hearing the crappy ones over and over, we might've finally been desensitized to real music worth the attention?
I don't have an answer, trust me. However, a few of my adventures into the hype machine may hopefully bring some light to the subject.
First and most important question on the docket: what am I supposed to be listening for when I'm sifting through piles of hipster/gangster-endorsed records? The most basic answers are, of course: (1) Whether I can jam to it, or (2) Whether I take the artist's lyrics to heart. Also, (3) whether the song gets stuck in my head for an extended period of time should also be taken into moderate account.*
**This question can be overlooked in a number of cases. Like Brooke Hogan's single, "Falling."
But then, there are more refined questions that must be addressed. Some of these include: (1) How much effort did this artist put into his/her/their album? (2) Do I take it seriously (read: is it Brooke Hogan?) Or, is it intentionally and endearingly silly? (3) Is it unique, or does it parrot something already around? (4) How far can this artist go without being unforgivably adventurous? (5) And, is there something about this record or artist that makes me biased for/against him/her/them?
Taking all of these into consideration, I had a tough time cracking the egg that was Passion Pit's new full-length album, Manners. Having known bassist Jeff Apruzzese from his previous band, The Peasantry, I was initially encouraged to enjoy the new music. However, avoiding the obvious pitfall of personal bias was not as hard as I thought it would be. I was definitely nonplussed when I saw them open for Girl Talk at BU this past fall, and--sorry, Jeff--no amount of friendly affection would have convinced me otherwise.
Then, when their EP Chunk of Change hit the stands earlier this year, I thought I'd give them another chance (here's where my friend duties were fulfilled). However, yet again, I was sorely disappointed. Nothing caught my ear at all, not melody, not lyrics, not exceptional musical prowess--excepting, of course, the lead singer's "unique" vocal timbre. Overall, I just did not enjoy listening to it.
Nevertheless, when a friend lent me her copy of the band's newest release, I decided ONE MORE LISTEN wasn't going to kill me--hopefully.
And what do you know? I started bobbing my head. I Googled the lyrics of three of the songs. Track four, "The Reeling," stuck in my head for a good 24 hours.
So what the hell changed? These are some reasons I came up with: (1) I unknowingly hit my head (not unlikely) and now have amnesia. (2) I unknowingly underwent radical eardrum surgery (unlikely rating: 7 of 10) and now all sounds are equally enjoyable. (3) Zombies made me do it. (highest unlikelihood, 9.5 of 10--because you never know.) (4) I just got used to it--a musical Münchausen Syndrome. (5) I finally picked up on the likability of the music.
All things considered, I've decided it's a combination of 4 and 5 (though I haven't ruled out zombies). While I know my getting used to the sounds of the album has a good deal to do with it, I have to admit that the electronic beats and unique vocals have an attractive quality in themselves. It's pretty new-agey, sure, but this is the future, and it's jammin'! You can certainly dance to it, there's a substantial level of talent apparent in the album's varying tracks, and lyrics like "Now I'm dreaming somebody/Would simply come and kidnap me" attain the perfect level of angst; for me, anyway.
So who knows? Give that band you hated a few months ago one more chance...you might just have a change of heart and acquire some new ear candy. More love, less hate, right?
All I'm saying for sure is, while it's not my "summer album," a couple tracks on Manners may creep their way onto a couple of my weekend party playlists. Thanks, guys.
•Extra!• After I'd begun this post, NPR's All Songs Considered released its most recent and highly relevant blog/podcast, entitled "Music You Should Love, But Don't." Check out the blog and post your thoughts here, or download the podcast here.
•Extra Extra!• Check out this really bizarre video from, of all places, ABC News, on Passion Pit and Manners...a friend shared this, and we agreed: couldn't stop laughing at all the irony.
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