In 2003, a peculiar New York duo calling themselves Department of Eagles released a bizarre collection of musical odds and ends titled Whitey on the Moon UK LP, named for the original name of the group. Daniel Rossen and Fred Nicolaus had a knack for sublime melodies and brilliant pop music, but spliced between those bits of harmonic brilliance were strange layers of samples and exercises in chop-ups and beats that pretty much sounded like what two guys messing around with samples on ProTools in their dorm room should sound like. And I mean that in the best way. Still, with stunning epic pop tunes like “The Horse You Ride,” there was a broad horizon across which the duo was capable of extending their talents, and certainly, it would only be a matter of time before they were to release a classic album.
Then somewhere in between, Rossen joins this band Grizzly Bear, who become critically acclaimed sensations, and Department of Eagles fades to the background temporarily. Yet two years after Grizzly Bear releases their outstanding Yellow House, Department of Eagles emerge once again with a new album on 4AD titled In Ear Park, a record that bears little, if any, resemblance to the drum machine quirk of yore. Rather, In Ear Park is a sprawling, dreamy pop record that bears more than a passing resemblance to Grizzly Bear’s magically atmospheric sound (which could also thanks in part to contributions from bandmates Chris Bear and Chris Taylor), yet with a bit more playfulness and just enough fuzz and grit to remind listeners of the messy celebration this group initially spawned.
With In Ear Park, Department of Eagles still leap from one style of song to another, yet without the pawn shop electronics that marked earlier works. Van Dyke Parks, Harry Nilsson, Flaming Lips and Elephant Six bands are all stirred up in the band’s mysterious and compelling cauldron, yielding a record as curious as it is breathtaking. From the opening title track on, Rossen and Nicolaus open up a sonic world of haunting intricacy, with smaller, more delicate parts coming into focus with increased listens. Twinkling piano, strings, masterfully plucked guitar—it’s all a perfect tapestry that kicks one’s jaw to the floor.
The dramatic opening track is met with a bit of contrast from “No One Does It Like You,” a bouncy, Pet Sounds-like psych-pop track that soars as it buzzes along. Rossen sings “I laughed so hard I fell down,” underscoring its buoyant joy with a bit of frustration, though ultimately the song is more celebratory than mournful, and a purely joyful listen at that. “Phantom Other” gives a brief glimpse into DOE’s prior works, as bursts of bizarro synth erupts beneath the gorgeous melody. “Teenagers” has a slightly drunken charm, reminiscent of Nilsson, while “Around the Bay” has a playful darkness about it, with rattling percussion beneath the cinematic arrangement. And “Herring Bone” has a delicate, refined quality within its escalating piano chords and sweet vocals.
As Rossen sings in the title track, “If you listen, you can hear the waves.” And when one puts his ear closely to the sound within In Ear Park, he’ll find a glorious sonic world, one with each mesmerizing component vying for ascendancy. Yet each minute piece is part of a greater landscape, a vast and fertile ground for melodic creativity that has grown wonderfully since those little, snarky seeds were planted half a decade ago.
MP3: “In Ear Park”
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.