In the liner notes to Department of Eagles’ new odds and ends collection Archive 2003-2006, Fred Nicolaus describes the duo’s first album Whitey on the Moon UK LP, later re-titled The Cold Nose, as a “hodgepodge of jokes, beats and songs we had recorded partially in a dorm room,” later adding, “we had become a band by accident.” Listening to that album side by side with their 4AD debut In Ear Park, one would find few similarities. One’s a graceful and haunting orchestral pop album, while the other is a compilation of lap-pop that runs the gamut from goofball hip-hop pisstakes to occasional gorgeous pop gems. How Nicolaus and his partner, Grizzly Bear guitarist Daniel Rossen, journeyed from one point to another has never been all that clear. And the absence of material during the four years between the two albums only makes the leap that much more confusing,.
Archive 2003-2006 is the missing link that bridges the band’s two albums. A compilation comprising six songs from a scrapped second album and five “Practice Room Sketches,” the set falls somewhere between a set of demos and a fully-formed EP. In truth, that’s essentially what this collection is. The six finished songs were recorded in January of 2006, part of a series of sessions in which Rossen and Nicolaus attempted to finish up a second album that never really materialized. While Nicolaus describes the sessions as a “necessary failure,” the material that resulted from the sessions is quite good, several of the songs tuneful and pretty enough to fit in alongside those of In Ear Park, their actual second album.
The first of these songs, “Deadly Disclosure” is a gentle ballad of plucked guitar strings and spectral backing vocals, a soft yet promising example of the shift the band had made since Whitey. However, “While We’re Young” is a much bigger, more accessible pop song that recalls, at times, Grizzly Bear’s “On a Neck, On a Spit.” A hefty shuffle of drums carries a strummy melody and a more confident, powerful vocal from Rossen. As the collection progresses, the songs maintain a high level of songcraft and intrigue, with several of Rossen’s brief “Practice Room Sketches” serving as pretty, if unfinished, segues between more complete tracks. “Brightest Minds” gallops with a sprightly beat and an old-timey charm, while “Flip” packs a lot of build and drama into two and a half minutes. And “Golden Apples” is an ornate and elegant piano piece, beautifully eerie and eerily beautiful.
Though it’s a shame that the “January Sessions” that produced these songs never actually came to fruition in the form of a finished album, finally being able to hear these unreleased songs is still quite a treat. More importantly, however, it’s encouraging to hear that no matter how unlikely a band Department of Eagles are, they managed to still keep going and growing into a truly gifted pair of musicians.
Stream: “Brightest Minds”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.