Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Most Half-Hearted 9.0 in Pitchfork History?

On a lighter, more navel-gazing meta note:

I still haven't heard Veckatimest, so I'm reserving judgment on the Album of the Year of the week until I have. I think Grizzly Bear is talented -- Ed Droste has a great voice, I love their harmonies, and their music is interestingly textured -- but the other records of theirs that I've heard have been plagued by, how shall I put this, really boring songwriting. Some highlights, sure, but the whole meandering thing didn't really float my boat. But then with this new one, people (including some of our own Collective) have been going nuts ever since the existence of a leak was even contemplated, so I'm holding out hope.

Needless to say, Pitchfork, in particular, has been wetting itself for months, and I was curious what number grade they'd give it -- would it beat Merriwether Post Pavilion?!?!?!!oneelevenone!!!

As it turns out, no, it got a respectfully fawning 9.0 grade. But if you read the review, do you get the feeling that the writer is almost apologizing for giving it such a high grade? It's filled to the brim with weirdly passive aggressive back handed compliments. In fact, nearly every paragraph has at least one fairly negative note. Reading the review, you wouldn't think it adds up to 9.0. To wit:

Veckatimest ain't perfect; lord knows it tries.

What's perhaps the most remarkable thing about the truly remarkable Veckatimest, however, is how very exciting much of it is; no small feat for a painstaking chamber-pop record that never once veers above the middle tempo.

2007's Friend EP had me worried that Grizzly Bear's insistence on having everything in its right place had forced formula onto what had seemed to that point freewheeling and free-associative. For every inspired moment on Friend, there was another that fell back on the tried-but-true: a quiet intro bleeding into a big, harmonic midsection followed by an eventual denouement.

But this is Grizzly Bear, and despite an increased confidence in their pop sensibilities and an overall strengthening of melodies, they're still meanderers at heart. Highlights abound, but Veckatimest does sound as though it was conceived as a whole piece, and one must consider both the overall structure and the connective tissue between the abundant highlights to judge it a success. Save "Cheerleader" and the lilting "Ready, Able", the stretch between "Fine for Now" and "While You Wait" wanders a bit; certain moments, like Rossen's "swim around like two dories" line and the wispy, wheezing "About Face", hit harder than others. But you'll be looking for a while to find anybody who thinks the center of Veckatimest is as strong as the stuff surrounding it.

Beyond irking folks predisposed to slagging off intricate and, yeah, "sophisticated" music like this-- you stay punk, I'mma stay fascinated-- this trip down yonder to the minor key will doubtless be the big complaint about Veckatimest. But really, couldn't we say the same about Yellow House? [Ed. note: This line is the most curious to me -- if this is supposed to be the big record that takes them to a next level, how is it relevant that the flaws of the new one are no different/worse than the flaws of their last, relatively little-heard one?]

Yet the pop moments on Veckatimest feel even bigger after the slight deviation at its core; surrounded by a few sour notes and sidesteps, "Cheerleader" and "Ready, Able" becomes that much stronger, and even the less effective numbers ("Hold Still", "Fine for Now") seem only to cower a smidge as a result of the staggering heights they're placed next to. Out of context, they're every bit as good as the more sinewy stuff that wove Yellow House together.

Yeah, Veckatimest sounds worked-over, but in the best of ways; carefully embellished, stripped bare when applicable, full of the joy of sounds colliding with other sounds.

I get it; Grizzly Bear can come across to some as boring. Lord knows I could go my whole life never reading another Ed Droste Tweet about pho or seeing Chris Taylor use a neti pot. But this little microcosm of imperfection indie rock's been working through lately could use a foil like Veckatimest, a record that, in searching for perfection through meticulousness, feels beautifully flawed and gloriously off-kilter without either side serving as the entire narrative.

I ended up reprinting nearly the entire review, but that's the point -- almost every line in the review is a sort of apologetic acknowledgment that, while deeply flawed, the record does have merit.* That's fine for a review -- but a 9.0? What I find odd is that it reads as if the reviewer didn't love it but then they slapped the 9.0 on anyway. I don't subscribe to the conspiracy theories of Ryan Schreiber dictating number grades from on high, but this is one of the strongest disjunctions between score and text that I've seen in a while. That said, I look forward to hearing it finally and judging for myself whether Texplush's "Next Radiohead" prediction will bear out...

*And don't get me wrong -- I LOVE deeply flawed but ultimately rewarding albums. Those are often some of my favorites. But this review takes things to another level.


texplush said...

this album is great, but i'd like to amend my 'next radiohead' tweet - i was wrong: Dirty Projectors is the next radiohead.

Eric said...

Your proclamations keep getting bolder!

drischord said...

I have always been vastly underwhelmed by Grizzly Bear. Could not bring myself to buy or even download Yellow House because it bored me.

This album is different, however. While the same Grizzly Bear criticisms apply-- the singing and arrangements are better than the actual songs-- all categories across the board have been improved such that this album was worth a purchase to me. I pre-ordered it from Amazon last week and it should arrive today or tomorrow.

You're right, though. What a lukewarm, apologetic endorsement.

drischord said...

As for Dirty Projectors, what I've heard of the new album does sound really good, but the Radiohead comparison is wrong.

Radiohead was making bona fide classics beginning with their second album; this will be #5 (or #6 depending on how you count 'em) for Dirty Projectors.

We shouldn't confuse talent for genius.

texplush said...

reducing my Next Radiohead algorithm to a petty discussion of album release order is laughable at best.

Eric said...

I think the Next Radiohead algorithm deserves a post of its own. There's only so much you can say in 140 characters.

texplush said...

the math is pretty complex for a pedestrian blog such as this, but i'll give it a shot once things calm down over here in texplush's world.

Eric said...

Wasting no time, I went out and got this today and after one solid listen, a lot of my basic issues with GB still stand, but it does have some really strong high points so I'm eager to dig deeper.

Quinapalus said...

Hey guys-- I just got off the phone with Thom Yorke, and he told me to tell you guys that the next Radiohead is actually going to be...Pink Floyd. I know that sounds weird, but apparently David Gilmore has been listening to lots of Aphex Twin, and it's about to push his songwriting to some really unexpected places.