Music Review: Grizzly Bear's Friend

by Hilary Crowe

The evolution of music today is, so far, quite disappointing. So much so that the best new bands are making everything old new again. The Black Lips bring Bud-soaked rockabilly back to the ATL (that’s Atlanta to anyone who isn’t a frequent flier, a hipster, or a rapper). And Devendra Banhart brings psyched-out folk and bobby socks into the 21st century. Grizzly Bear, however, looks a little closer to home for new material, reverting to their archives and hard drives to pull out their fourth EP and second sonic devolution, Friend.

For those unfamiliar with Grizzly Bear, the bands’ experimentation and background in laptop electronica, free jazz and Williamsburg, Brooklyn hipster-chic is apparent in their habit of mixing and remixing recently-crafted classics and fan favorites. Untouched, their music is evocative of a 21st century frontiersman – a bit of a space cowboy. The brilliance of their first album, 2004’s Horn of Plenty, is overshadowed in their discography only by the remixes of those same songs, reworked and released shortly after with the help of preeminent electronica outfits Efterklang and Soft Pink Truth, among others. The band’s subsequent fall from grace, thanks to 2006’s virtually unacknowledged Sorry for the Delay, was short-lived, as the stellar Yellow House was released and readily embraced by critics that same year.

With such a successful past, no wonder the band is reluctant to charge ahead with a completely new roster of compositions. Grizzly Bear seems to have realized that revisiting past work with new collaborators turns tracks that have started to collect dust into gold. As such, Friend consists of only three new songs interspersed with an amalgam of alternate versions and endings to the ever-unfinished, individual opuses on Horn of Plenty and Yellow House. Of the other seven tracks, four are covers of Grizzly Bear’s past work and three are alternate versions performed by the band, the resulting product a mixed bag of hits and misses.

Ill-conceived covers drag the otherwise tolerable album into the gutter: both new versions of “Plans” positively butcher the most haunting track off Yellow House, with buzz-group Band of Horses contributing an especially heinous and nauseatingly unoriginal hack-job to the mix. However, the two covers of “Knife” will be refreshing to fans who’ve had Grizzly Bear’s original version of the genius Yellow House hit on constant repeat for the past year. Interestingly, Brazilian dance troupe CSS provides one of the covers of "Knife," and it is the most pleasantly surprising track on Friend, bringing to mind the ridiculous decadence of ’80s-era Miami Vice and the staid, jaded attitude of a John Hughes character.

Grizzly Bear’s own alternate song versions are acceptable, but pale in comparison to the originals. This time around, however, “Alligator,” off Horn of Plenty, is a pleasure: extended to four times its original length and crafted with a more lumbering and primitive lilt as its namesake demands, and the band’s newly-enhanced, haunting chorales and melodies make the song’s sado-masochistic allegory of love and its tortured protagonist, the human heart, psychosomatically palpable.

From the new songs, and indeed the album as a whole, two songs stand out and stand on-par with the masterful works from Horn of Plenty. “He Hit Me” is the instrumental incarnate of waltzing with an elephant, its vocals reminiscent of one-time-tour-mate Feist’s cover of Ron Sexsmith’s “Secret Heart.” Infused with Lithium-inspired diffidence and flourishes of affected darkness, the song is most comparable to an alternate universe’s version of Gladys Knight and the Pips, with a lovers’ quarrel chorus sure to get stuck in any listener’s head. Similarly, “Deep Blue Sea” is cleanly crafted, sounding very much like a Yellow House outtake: equal parts tearful and wistful, filled with melancholic meandering, yet vibrating with hope and an offbeat je ne sais quoi feeling. Much like Friend as a whole, the song has an accidental quality to it: the music disappears for about 30 seconds before breaking into a manic, running-of-the-bulls Castillian climax.

Overall a disjointed and jarring collection, Friend is more a gift to Grizzly Bear fans, as any chance of winning new admirers with this album is slim to none. Hopefully, this release is just that: something to tide fans over until the band births its new brainchild – a more cohesive and worthy addition to their discography.

(Editor's Note: After a four-month hiatus, we welcome Hilary Crowe back to the blog.)

(Grizzly Bear's
Friend is set for release today, Tuesday, Nov. 6. The band was originally set to appear on NBC's Late Night with Conan O'Brien tonight as part of the release's debut, but that was canceled due to the writer's strike. Grizzly Bear will make an in-store appearance and play at the Virgin Megastore in New York City on Wednesday, Nov. 7.)

(In the photo, three of Grizzly Bear's four members, l-r: Ed Droste, singer-guitarist; Chris Taylor, guitarist; and Christopher Bear, drummer. The photo was taken at the band's appearance at UCLA in February. Photo by David Greenwald of Los Angeles, via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License. To see more of David Greenwald's photography and music articles, check out his blog, The Rawking Refuses to Stop! To see Grizzly Bear's video for "Plans" – two other versions of this song appear on
Friend – please see below.)

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Anonymous said...

nice review. pitchfork seemed to go ape shit for it.

personally I MUCH perfer that version of alligator and shift, however I prefer the older little brother.

that said, for 7 or 8 bucks, I think this is a pretty cool release to tide us GB fans over.

Hilary Crowe said...

Thanks! I agree, it's definitely worth a few bucks: there are some winners on the album.

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