Technically speaking, Grizzly Bear’s debut was the spare, bedroom-recorded House of Plenty, a humble, psychedelic folk album awash in static and tape loops, oddball samples and distorted melodies. A fine record though it was, Grizzly Bear was hardly even a band at the time of its recording, then consisting of little more than songwriter Ed Droste with some added percussion from chum Chris Bear. The lo-fi folky recordings, of course, warranted comparisons to Iron & Wine, Devendra Banhart, Elliott Smith, and any other dude who has home recorded some acoustic finger-pickin’ and sweetly sung poetry at some point in the last ten years. Not to say the similarities weren’t there, but the Grizzly Bear on Yellow House is a considerably different beast, if for no better reason than that they are, in fact, a fully formed band. So it would only follow that Yellow House sounds like the work of a fully formed band, rather than a sole, sensitive loner.
Melodically, Yellow House follows closely to that of Horn of Plenty, consistently opting for weird melodies, weird structures and weird progressions. But where that album sounded more like a well put-together demo than a professional album, this one opens the door to a limitless, cinematic world of sounds and curiosities. Droste and his mates avoid experimentation for the sake of itself, fucking with a perfectly good melody only in an effort to make it sound that much better. Opening track “Easier” could have just been a simple acoustic tune, but paired with old-timey piano and string samples, plucked banjo, sweet vocal harmonies and glockenspiel, it’s a masterpiece of a psychedelic hootenanny.
“Lullaby” is given a fitting title, as its melody is a gentle one, twilit and dreamy with slow, hazy strands of vocals and floating waves of guitar. Yet a harshly strummed “clang” interrupts, separating the song into two parts, the latter half escalating into a trippy rock exercise with crashing drums and layered vocal reverberations. The catchiest song on the album, “Knife,” is by far one of the most stunning, mixing doo-wop style rhythms and vocal treatments with an atmospheric otherness, effects turning that soulful delivery into a truly weird experiment worthy of Mercury Rev. But when transitioning to the chorus, which occurs only once mind you, the song becomes a simple three chord progression, while the band harmonizes the feel-good feel-bad line of the summer: “Can’t you feel the kni-eee-iiife?”
There is a profound level of depth on each of these songs, as within mere seconds new details come to light and minute aspects begin to form a sublime whole in the listener’s ears. Beginning with an almost Steve Reich-like marimba sequence, “Central and Remote” drops in volume, progressing through a gentle verse toward a grand chorus with sweeping movements. In similar fashion, “Little Brother” opens as a simple folk tune, made all the more menacing when the stomping percussion enters the picture, taking a gentle song into a much harsher and more violent place. “On a Neck, On a Spit” has been previewed on many a blog and `zine over the last few months, its own structure a bit of a mystery while its melody is undeniably accessible and fun. Like an Akron/Family song more than anything else, the song starts off with rustic, rootsy acoustic chords and harshly plucked strings, though the tempo picks up, and almost as if breaking into a second song altogether, becomes an upbeat folk rock song with no shortage of instrumental layers and harmonic joy. It’s a wondrous thing, and the weirdest song I’ve heard that I could legitimately call catchy.
By the time one reaches closer “Colorado,” with its stunning miasma of seeping vocal echos and melancholy piano plunks, one certainly feels as if he’s been to the moon and back. It’s a mind-melting closer to a thoroughly invigorating album. Grizzly Bear don’t rock in the conventional sense, opting for deeply moving soundscapes and hypnotic melodies, but they provide an exhausting listen all the same. Yellow House spits squarely in the eye of the sophomore slump, doing what every band really should be doing: taking their sound not just a step, but an entire leap further.
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.