There’s a gruff thunk! of a needle to wax, and a vaudeville piano starts to plink a tune you could imagine emanating from a Prohibition-era speakeasy in the Tenderloin. Over a hesitant waltz, a quavering female voice wails a curious ditty about misplaced items like a French horn, clamshells, and a sheepskin coat. Grizzly Bear’s Edward Droste auditions this song his Great-Aunt Marla recorded some 70 years ago so that I might hear the original in juxtaposition with his band’s own cover. The original title now lost to time, “Marla” throbs as the emotional core of Grizzly Bear’s new album Yellow House; in their hands, this now elegiac dirge discloses the silent despair beneath her whimsical veneer.
“She came to New York City to be a singer in the 1930s, failed, and drank herself to death in the 1940s,” Ed recounts drolly as we knock back pale ales and mint juleps. It’s the hottest day of the year, and the Brooklyn-based band hides from the heat at a rustic, wood-lined bar. While it was Droste’s songs (documenting a time “vaguely in haze and depressed and going through weird shit,” he says) that comprised all of Grizzly Bear’s 2004 debut Horn of Plenty, the dour, miasmic album (drawing from folk without getting “freaky”) was completed with some help from multi-disciplined musician Christopher Bear, and soon augmented live by Chris Taylor and Daniel Rossen.
With Rossen now on board as the second songwriter—and tempered by Bear’s shuffling toms and Taylor’s affected slurs of clarinet, horn, and flute—the 2006 quartet incarnation of Grizzly Bear is a decidedly different and remarkable, uh, beast. Emotionally evocative, gorgeous yet restrained, Horn of Plenty‘s lonesome lo-fi loops are replaced on Yellow House by a nurturing band sound and broader instrumental palette. Piano, banjo, autoharp, bells, metallophone, strings, and woodwinds swirl about the mix, captured on Taylor’s mobile recording unit. While the de facto producer, he decidedly kept the sentimentality of the first album intact, capturing “these heartfelt, intimate things, like ‘You caught me with my pants down.’ ” Droste initially fretted about being set up inside his mother’s Victorian home off Cape Cod (yes, it is indeed yellow) during a month-long stint housesitting/recording, but it lent a casual air to the proceedings. The living-room space infuses a radiant warmth to the gauze of vocal harmonies and woodwinds on songs like “Lullabye” and “Colorado,” the band sounding casual and assured in letting the songs unfurl naturally.
It helped that the band first crafted a lot of songs at their respective apartments, quietly and alone—mindful of neighbors, Rossen notes that “writing at home, you play more acoustic-based music” that still bears traces of that intimacy. Taylor too chalks up Yellow House‘s comfortable disposition to its environment, where you could “go lay on the couch or go to the refrigerator and grab lemonade,” he recalls. “It sounds subtle in the recording process, [but] as far as psychology is concerned, it’s very meaningful.” He’s quick to add that “It was intense to live with everyone, though. Everybody challenged each other; no one went unchecked.”
Intensifying matters was the searing July sun bearing down on the house—”It was fucking hot as hell,” Rossen says. But discomfort and intimacy go hand in hand. Aside from “Marla” (whose portrait hangs in one room), “Little Brother” also resounds with the idea of family, the tyranny of distance, the memories of home. Doors, hallways, swimming pools, and beds crop up in the lyrics, but the band was always mindful to get out of the house, too. Rosen details a daily ritual: “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.”