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After the gruff thunk! of a needle hitting wax, a vaudeville piano starts to plink. It's a tune you could imagine emanating from a Prohibition-era speakeasy in the Tenderloin. Over a hesitant waltz, a frazzled, secretarial voice wails. Grizzly Bear's Edward Droste auditions his Great-Aunt Marla's song for me so that I might juxtapose the original with Grizzly Bear's own version. Its real title now lost to time, the rechristened "Marla" throbs as the emotional core of Grizzly Bear's acclaimed 2006 release, Yellow House; in their hands, this now elegiac dirge elucidates the despair beneath Marla's whimsical veneer.
"She came to New York City to be a singer in the 1930s, failed, and drank herself to death in the 1940s," Droste states drolly as we knock back pale ales and mint juleps. In a time when he was "vaguely in a haze, depressed, and going through weird shit," Droste wrote the songs of Grizzly Bear's debut, Horn of Plenty. Drummer Christopher Bear helped him complete it, and Chris Taylor and Daniel Rossen joined so that fans of the breakout bedroom album could see a real band at live shows. "We immediately morphed into a four-person band," Droste explains, stirring the mint in his glass. "The mood and general tone is similar, but Yellow House is basically a debut."
Tempered by Bear's shuffling toms; Taylor's affected slurs of clarinet, horn, and flute; and Rossen's songwriting contributions, this incarnation of Grizzly Bear sounds like a different, uh, beast. Yellow House is emotionally evocative, gorgeous yet restrained. The lonesome lo-fi loops from the first album have been replaced by piano, banjo, autoharp, bells, metallophone, strings, and woodwinds. Taylor, the de facto producer, kept the mood personal, capturing "these heartfelt, intimate things, (almost) like, 'you caught me with my pants down.'" Droste initially fretted over the recording arrangement—the band camped out inhis mother's Victorian home off Cape Cod (yes, it is indeed yellow)—but the living room space infused the proceedings with radiant warmth.
Live, Grizzly Bear's acoustic timbres and studio nuances give way to something louder. Rossen sings through a slap-back effect, giving his voice a tremulous quicksilver quality that sounds like Peter Gabriel. And when their four-part harmonies collude onstage, they evoke not just the Animal Collective, or Droste's own family roots in Harvard's glee club, but rather radio staples like...uh, Kansas. Which is not so shocking, considering that they covered "Owner of a Lonely Heart," emphasizing the song's forlorn core.
Aside from "Marla," (whose portrait hangs in one room of the actual yellow house), other songs resound with the theme of isolation from family, the discomfit of distance, and the memories of home. Images of doors, hallways, swimming pools, and beds crop up, but the band was mindful to get out of the house, too. Rosen details a daily ritual during recording: "We had cocktail hour religiously every evening out on the back porch. It was sweet: listening to cicadas, looking at the trees as the sun was setting, (holding) a cocktail. That was always something to look forward to."
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