VIDEO: Grizzly Bear, "Two Weeks"
It's become a commonplace to say that "indie" is too vague to mean anything useful, but that's not actually true. What is true is that the meaning of the word has changed. Twenty years ago, "indie" was short for "independent," and it referred to a kind of record label. What it means now is "indie rock," which is a style of music: a certain jangle in the guitars, vocals that make a home in the upper register, elaborate instrumentation (hello, Sufjan!), and song structures like labyrinths. If current indie rock has any one historical precedent, it's progressive rock. You know, from the '70s.
That might sound like an insult, but it's not. Despite a well-documented history of excesses (hello, Emerson, Lake & Palmer!), prog rock turned out a lot of sophisticated, immersive, gorgeous music. It's no stretch to apply all three adjectives to Grizzly Bear's new Veckatimest (Warp), which works on the listener like a hedge maze. Oh, and about the name: "It's an uninhabited island off Cape Cod, near where we recorded," says singer Ed Droste over the phone. "We just got into the topography."
This isn't the first time Grizzly Bear — who come to the Berklee Performance Center this Wednesday — have named a record after the place where they made it. Their previous album, Yellow House (Warp), took its title from the Watertown home of Droste's mother. Veckatimest was recorded in three places, and Droste says each had a part in shaping the record's sound. "Because we have our own mobile recording rig, and because we record it ourselves, the spaces filter in to varying degrees." He says the Cape Cod location — his grandmother's house, in fact — had a working fireplace. "The crackling made its way into a few songs."
There are similar sonic nuggets hiding throughout Veckatimest, but the sound here is much clearer. Yellow House drenched its songs in a humid summer's haze — the album was recorded over the course of a sweltering July. "This time we learned how to edit ourselves," says Droste. "If you look at the actual files, there are fewer layers on this album." There are times, he says, when more is not necessarily more.
And confidence now abounds, most of all in Droste's vocals. His honeyed falsetto has an almost theatrical push to it, something he attributes to "years of performing and learning to sing out." When the rest of the group join in for one of Grizzly Bear's harmonic swells, they sound like a choir. Part of Veckatimest, it turns out, was recorded in a church balcony. "That is amazing for vocals," says Droste. "Such great church-like vocals."
It's just as well the album is good, because Veckatimest is the most eagerly awaited record since Animal Collective last sent Pitchfork looking for a change of pants. Hyperventilating blogs may not be anything new, but Grizzly Bear are attracting attention from the wider musical world. In February, they played a concert with the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, and Droste says a show with the London Symphony is in the works. "They just got in touch with you?" "Actually, they came to the Brooklyn Phil show and liked it. Yeah, they flew over for it."