Grizzly Bear (1.31.07)

Posted on July 28, 2008


Telling it like it isn’t
written by Matt Parish

It takes a set of balls to go out and call an album as ornately wacky as Yellow House “pop music.” Especially when what it really sounds like is Thomas Pynchon calling the shots at the Pet Sounds sessions. But it’s precisely the term singer/guitarist Ed Droste uses to describe this insanity.

“I think the new record is just the most poppy thing we’ve done,” insists Droste, with the stark ease of Orwellian doublespeak. “I’d just call it ‘pop.’”

This method of straight-faced insistence that black is white is a strategy that I start to admire the more I think about it. Droste, the principal songwriter and founder of the Brooklyn group, has at his command the Stanley Kubrick of indie-rock bands: all glacially paced, over-the-top beauty and pinpoint orchestration. Like I said, to call anything like the songs on their newest record, Yellow House, “pop music” takes nads. It’s like writing your history paper at midnight in the middle of your first-ever acid trip, waking up to realize that every other sentence reveals embarrassingly sentimental thoughts you’d been having about your mother, and then volunteering to read it in front of the class.

It’s almost as if Droste has something else in mind—sort of like a Zen teacher giving you half-truths and daring you to keep asking questions about it.

He got me wondering what the world would be like if bizarre, experimental records like Yellow House started appearing in the Top 40 and became the pop music of our time. The bar would effectively be raised sky-high for guys who make “quirky” music deemed too difficult for most to bother listening to. No more pushing people to the fringe; no more musicians hiding out in dark corners of the attic where they could conveniently avoid ever being actually noticed by anyone. It would be harder for all the regular pop bands to keep being pop bands and all the weirdos to keep being weird.

Maybe, in his own way, Droste is right about calling Yellow House pop. Far from lurking in corners, he’ll be playing songs from the album in opening slots for David Bowie-faves TV on the Radio and showing up alongside Thom Yorke on New York Times best-of lists.

So, hats off to you, Droste.

Growing up in Boston, Droste staunchly denies having any formal music training whatsoever, despite his grandfather holding the chair at the Harvard Department of Music for years and his mother being an elementary school music teacher. Droste seems to have preferred finding his own careful way, eking out the first Grizzly Bear album by himself in his bedroom after moving to New York.

“Everything with that record was thrown together, very haphazard. I got the band together afterwards so we could do live shows—they’re the ones who actually know all the music stuff.”

Yellow House contrasts most with its predecessor, Horn of Plenty, in its painstakingly intricate composition and instrumentation—an ethereal mishmash of folk and haze that brings to mind an Appalachian county fair band teaming up with the orchestra from In Like Flint. But don’t mention folk to Droste.

“At least reviewers have dropped that ‘freak-folk’ think going on with the last record,” he says. “Just because we’re called ‘Grizzly Bear’ doesn’t mean we sound like Animal Collective, guys.”

I ask him if there’s any conscious element of fantasy at work in his songwriting, which has a tendency to imbue domestic images like kites, pillows and old frozen pipes with a strange significance.

“I think some of it may sound fantastical, but it’s all grounded,” he says. “I’m not about to go write a concept album about a woman battling a giant robot or whatever it was the Flaming Lips did that album about.”

I think about the Esquivel-like chorus of fluttering voices arching over “Central and Remote” like seagulls, and wonder if we might have an honest-to-goodness wackjob on our hands. I’ve always suspected that the greatest lunatics aren’t the ones who are aware of their lunacy, but the ones who have no idea.

[Originally Appeared in Boston’s Weekly Dig 1.31.07]