Side projects are a risky maneuver—expectations are evenly split between those who want you to sound exactly like the group you’ve splintered from, and those anticipating something wildly different. Most dedicated Grizzly Bear fans know that the band is primarily the brainchild of singer Ed Droste, who cobbled together a group of brilliant musicians and vocalists to realize his lush, dark, orchestral-pop dreams. So those expecting a variation on a theme from GB alum Dan Rossen’s ensemble Department of Eagles will be pleasantly nonplussed.
While it’s hard not to compare the two groups when three guys are members of both, DOE’s breed of cerebral Americana is a departure from Grizzly Bear’s brooding sensuality. Rossen’s songwriting does share a reverence for classical composition and a penchant for stunning string arrangements, but where his main gig’s influences are more experimental, In Ear Park owes a debt to the likes of Django Reinhardt, Van Dyke Parks, Meredith Willson, and Ray Davies. Perhaps in a nod to traditional classical compositions, the songs funnel into one another like movements, from the dreamy swell of the titular lead track to the near-perfect Kinks ode “No One Does It,” which layers what sounds like a Chinese mandolin atop the limber, chameleon-like voice of fellow GB vocal prodigy Chris Taylor. The only bum note is “Classical Records,” an indulgent, overly ambitious, and outré exercise that fulfills its meta promise: “Do you suffer through those records that you turned around/Or do you let them sleep in their sleeves?” What lingers when the record fades out with the remarkable coda “Balmy Night” is Rossen’s pristine musicianship, and the affirmation that he’s lived up to—if not exceeded—all those pesky expectations.