Review Summary: A sometimes sketchy but mostly solid reworking of past Grizzly Bear songs.
What made Yellow House
such an inaccessible first listen was its extravagant back porch handling; a party you stumbled upon navigating the neighborhood and have no business attending. But once the jumbled mix of structure and melody finally, and surprisingly, congealed, there’s no denying the from-the-basement-floor growth that Grizzly Bear masterfully handled, creating an album that almost begged for friends to join and sing along to.
Which makes Friend
so unsurprising, as much Grizzly Bear’s album as it is those who join along, and I guess that means us, too. The decision to rework “Alligator” from their debut, Horn of Plenty
, is fully realized from the original’s condensed, fuzzy keyboard into a five minute kicker, snatching erratic bursts of drums and melodies in waves of climaxes. Along with the help of members from Beirut and Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear turns the song into a delicate, fuzzy operatic opener, taking full advantage of what Friend
means to their work. “Little Brother (Electric)” turns its origins on Yellow House
as one of the album’s shiftiest, most stuffed folk-pop outings into a sweeping, electric guitar grooved rock template. It’s no less better than its original outfit, but that’s not the point; by giving us alternatives, Grizzly Bear at least gives us options, and whether you’d like your freak folk stuffed or softened into more lush and matured ‘70s rock, it’s there for you to pick. That might blur the line between pointless
, but Friend
sometimes works well enough that debating its existence seems extraneous, if not altogether fruitless.
More than just re-recordings, tracks like “Shift (Alternate Version)” filter out the originals’ precocious quirks (in this case, “Shift”’s static production and untapped melody), churning out instead the lush, soft-bellied acoustic that packs more of a wallop with its sedated and affecting emotion. Substituting the kitchen noises and claps for more prominent whistles and rolling vocals and shaded guitar, “Shift (Alternate Version)” feels more homespun and characteristic of its creators. It’s as good as any track to place the cleansing “Plans (Terrible vs. Nonhorse: Sounds Edit)” after, treating the band to a wash of noisy clips and snippets, washing away the new-old for the new-old-new. Up to this point, what made Friend
such an interesting, sometimes fascinating listen was Grizzly Bear’s own determination to deconstruct and rebuild their own songs. In “He Hit Me”’s case, they turned an ear for drama into, if not a wholly satisfying listen, than at least a good one, wavering between passive aggressiveness and the barrage of callous guitars and affectionate coos for the cover of the Crystal’s tune. “He hit me/I felt like a kid/he hit me/and I knew I loved him” feels rehearsed to a bathroom mirror, not emotionless but stalled.
So when Friend
opts for the route of its title, weaving between two unreleased songs three covers, it feels fake and cheap. “Granny Diner” barely stands up on its own as a shadow encased whisper, fingering its guitar while going for a more melancholic atmosphere, but its knocked clean off its feet when CSS kick out their cover of Yellow House
’s “Knife.” Given a pop-synth makeover, CSS bring some crass unevenness to the track, a naivety that gives the youthful, girlish vocals some slack where Grizzly Bear obviously fared better. It doesn’t necessarily work, calling more to mind The Knife than “Knife.” Band of Horses and Atlas Sound flounder with their respective assignments, the former cheekily forcing Yellow House
’s slow, unnerving “Plans” to succumb to the abrasive alt-country Band of Horses haven’t even fully dabbled in yet. (Banjos, guys? Really?) To keep the latter half of Friend
afloat, the album’s closer, the second unreleased track, brings the sort of in-home recording balance that sends Friend
out on its best foot.
Drenched in the fireplace storytelling that ignited Yellow House
and crept into the corners of Horn of Plenty
, “Deep Blue Sea”’s trembling acoustic guitar and Daniel Rossen’s smooth, story-of-the-month voice draw the album to an appropriate, lulling close. His persistent repeating of the track’s title belies his longing for more than just a “deep blue sea,” but that’s most of the charm (the song is even fitted with a hidden track, Beirut’s Zach Condon collaborating to create a rolling western under horns and southern guitar). “Deep Blue Sea,” complete with hidden track, speaks volumes about Friend
as a whole. There’s Grizzly Bear’s true-to-form songwriting, the best of an album sparkling with burly gems, tail-ended with a fun, pointless, but exemplary collaboration. Friend
works best as a subtle mix of both, the band’s admirable dissection of their own work to create something new, along with the help of others to lend a fresher, cleaner view. When left to their own demise, the others just can’t seem to register what makes the originals work. Grizzly Bear might not always be up to the task either, but they can at least point it out on a map. The rest of us just wish that they take what they gained from this experiment in maturation and hop back on track.