Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest & the Critics

by Rick Rockwell

It’s never pretty when critical darlings fall off that special untouchable pedestal. You can just hear the anguished cries, the breaking glass.

The latest example: Grizzly Bear and the band’s new release Veckatimest. It seems like everyone from National Public Radio to the alternative rock press fell in love with the band’s last release Yellow House.

Not this time. David Malitz in The Washington Post savaged the record as boring and pretentious.

Actually, much of Malitz' take on Veckatimest is correct. He analyzes the sound and explains it well. He just doesn’t like what Grizzly Bear has produced this time. The band has sinned. They did not meet his expectations. As if critics set the musical agendas of bands and songwriters.

What the reviews of Veckatimest reveal is the closed-minded nature of rock criticism. In that world, certain rules for music are the vogue: songs shouldn’t exceed five minutes; songs that are quiet and introspective are suspect; and anything that references progressive rock must be attacked relentlessly. Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest fails on all counts. The fact that Grizzly Bear has the temerity to sonically reference Gentle Giant (on the track "Dory") or King Crimson (check the chord progressions on "I Live With You") means they have committed a cardinal sin in the church of rock music criticism.

James McGrory at The Georgetown Voice also calls Grizzly Bear boring. McGrory actually likes Veckatimest better than what the band has produced in the past, but he calls their style of chamber pop empty. To his credit, McGrory is consistent; he has never praised the band.

Such criticism is frustrating to read. What if McGrory and Malitz had been handed Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon when it was new? What would they make of that record? Not to say that Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest rises to Pink Floyd’s level, but many of the same techniques employed by Floyd to make a classic rock opus are what Grizzly Bear is using too. The band's examples for such experimentation are not only Floyd, and the Beatles, but also the Beach Boys.

Malitz calls Grizzly Bear precious for trying to emulate the Beach Boys. Actually, what Grizzly Bear has pulled off on Veckatimest is a pretty bold trick, as some parts of this third full-length studio release from the band echo Smile-era Beach Boys ("Two Weeks" especially). If Brian Wilson is listening, he should be smiling. Members of Grizzly Bear could be his musical grandchildren.

But Grizzly Bear is doing more than finding an artistic way to update Wilson’s signatures by adding in progressive rock flavors and then using indie rock sensibilities to make it all hang together. The opening track to Veckatimest, "Southern Point," not only gives a nod of respect to Radiohead but throws in some jazzy orchestrations for a pleasing twist. “Fine for Now” shows Grizzly Bear can also create layers of dynamic music that recalls their chamber pop contemporaries, the Decemberists.

Is Veckatimest a great record? No. Perhaps this is also why critics are reacting negatively. They have charted Grizzly Bear’s progress on their personal musical spreadsheets and the band should reach a particular level of achievement by the third record. But Veckatimest is still very good, perhaps even a slightly better record than Yellow House. However, that doesn’t cut it when the critics are creating their own virtual echo chamber for what should be adored and what should be trashed.

Fans of Grizzly Bear will likely shake their heads and wonder what the critics are talking about. Which is why that old Latin phrase applies when reading any criticism: caveat emptor.

(For a review of Grizzly Bear's EP Friend, please go here. For a short review of Yellow House, please go here.)

(The promotional photo of Grizzly Bear is from Warp Records. The band continues its world tour with a concert date in New York City, tonight, Friday, May 29. To see Grizzly Bear's video for "Two Weeks," please check below.)

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