The Thinking Man's Take On: Album Of The Year 2009 Showdown, II

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I want to say off the bat that I think Ed Droste, lead singer of Grizzly Bear, is a classy gent.When Grizzly Bear’s third studio release, Veckatimest, leaked at the beginning of this month (nearly 3 months before the album’s May 26th release date) he had this to say…er…Tweet: “So yeah, it leaked. I'm happy people are loving it. Makes me smile! Just remember it's not a top notch sonic example. So keep that in mind.”What a stud.He followed that up with a very human confession, “I'm trying to be zen about the album leaking because I'm "ok" with it, but I'm bummed. And apparently it's [a] low quality rip. :( So now everyone will be judging it off of a crappy rip. Sigh.... Was hoping to make it to at least april! I'm cool with it just....so early!”

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Indeed, my reservations in reviewing the album lie in just those realms – it’s a low quality rip and it’s super early.It’s a bit like Picasso painting a masterpiece for your birthday, except that someone ran into his studio, took a picture of the canvas with their cellphone, and emailed it to you 3 months ahead of time.It’s cool, it gets you excited for the real deal, but it also feels like it cheapens the experience a bit.

But, after some thought (and – full disclosure – some listens) I decided to go ahead and review the album.And not in just a standard review, but in the second official PMA Album of the Year Showdown.Yes, it’s that good.In the end, I hope to build some excitement for the high quality official release – the leak has only gotten me more pumped to hear Veckatimest in all of its glory.

Before moving on to the album itself, one more note on Droste and his down to Earth demeanor.Check this excerpt from a February interview with Pitchfork:

"My philosophy is that, people buying records is dying. Generally speaking, at the level we're at, most of the people who buy our albums do it because they want to support us… I don't think we'd have the fanbase that we have if it were not for out songs being able to spread around the internet and gain attention. I think it'd be harder, if not impossible, for a band like us to have gotten where we've gotten. So I'm incredibly grateful for the internet age.

Of course, the amount of work and effort we've put into this album is staggering.  And sometimes it's a bit disheartening to think you can just download it really easily and dismiss it if you don't like it.  But that's also the nature of the beast...if they really like it, they'll buy the vinyl or they'll go buy the CD to support us or on iTunes.  Other people support the band by coming to a show.  So, of course I'd love to sell a lot of records and chart and stuff but realistically speaking, it's going to leak."

I just think it’s really great to hear artists with very realistic expectations about how fans today are exposed to music – leaking, love it or hate it, is a part of the modern music industry (and a future Thinking Man topic?).Hearing artists speak honestly and realistically about the process makes me more inclines to go buy records and support them, no doubt.So kudos.

On to the Showdown.

In the Red Corner, standing at 11 tracks, 54 minutes, reigning champ with 1 win and zero losses, king of the ring, Animal Collective with Merriweather Post Pavilion.

In the Blue Corner, standing at 12 tracks, 52 minutes, third-time’s-the-charm, on the heels of sophomore success, The Challenger, Grizzly Bear with Veckatimest.

As always (twice) we start with the Challenger.

Veckatimest is a brilliant piece of work.It is nuanced, subtle, and patient while simultaneously accessible, upbeat, and undeniably poppy.The hooks are catchy and the lyrics are clear.Color me excited – as the first few jazzy bars of album opener “Southern Point” slowly develop into a full-on romp I hear the first real potential challenge to Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Grizzly Bear has always had a sort of smooth energy, but here it really shines through – the band packs a punch and isn’t afraid to deliver it, without losing their trademark atmospheric sound.An impressive feat, that one, allowing the band to both advance and expand without alienating or forgetting what got them to where they are today.

If “Southern Point” is the alley, “Two Weeks” is the oop, an undeniable slam dunk and my favorite cut from the album.Hauntingly beautiful melodies layered over a bouncy piano riff, the sound captures my heart from the outset.Veckatimest is off to a good start.

A good start, however, does not a good album make.Many artists pack the front end of a release with singles and bangers, hoping to ensnare listeners prior to the duds at the end of the album.Not so with this LP.“While You Wait For The Others”, “I Live With You”, and “Foreground”, the final three tracks on the album, are three of my favorites.“While You Wait For The Others” and “I Live With You” are lush enough to make my 128kb rip sound expansive, eliciting shivers of excitement for the May 26th full quality release.“Foreground” is an appropriate close to a great album – bare and beautiful.The album closes with an airy note that lingers before dissolving into thin air, leaving the listener wondering when exactly it ended, the echo remaining in their ears a few seconds past the note’s finish.

There are two ways to end an album - with a bang or with a whimper.Grizzly Bear chooses the latter, but it’s a beautiful whimper, as if to leave the album in the hands of the listener.A triumphant stomp at the end declares “This album is over!” but the more coquettish fading note asks “Is it over?”, a much more suitable ending to a beautiful album.

On Veckatimest, Grizzly Bear does a lot of things right and hardly anything wrong.Sure, some songs stand out more than others, dominating the takeaways from the album.But can you really hold that up as a fault?If anything, it’s a strength, bringing you back to the record over and over again.“My Girls” did it for Merriweather Post Pavilion, and “Two Weeks” will do it for Veckatimest.I’m confident that many new fans will be won over by this album.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, what sort of matchup would this be without some stiff competition?Merriweather Post Pavilion, it must be said, remains a force to be reckoned with.And although it has quieted down a bit, the buzz for this album is highly deserved.Since it is increasingly difficult to find new things to say about Animal Collective’s incredible effort, I offer you this video of old people listening to “My Girls”.Priceless.Agree to disagree, Granny.Plus, you totally kill your cred by loving the track from "The Young Jeezies" (slash lying to seem cool).  The Animal Collective part starts at 2:23, for those of you with more important things to do than watch a 5 minute long youtube video.

In addition to the video and Joe (on the right) imitating Animal Collective by saying "bipbipbipbipbipbip", here are some of my favorite snapshots of brilliance from Merriweather Post Pavilion for those of you who are searching for highlights in a uniformly amazing album:

- The key change that grabs your attention at 46 seconds into the album, letting you know that something sick is coming.

- The cycling background and bouncy syncopation of the oft-overlooked “Bluish”, one of my favorite tracks on Merriweather Post Pavilion.

- The line “This wilderness needs to get right out of my clothes and get into my BED-room” at the 56 second mark in “Lion in a Coma”

Ooh, they give me goosebumps.

The verdict.This is a tough one – made tougher by possible quality concerns.Perhaps my favorite aspect of Merriweather Post Pavilion is how easy it is to get lost in the waves of rich sound that crash from the album.I feel like, and I think Ed Droste would agree, Veckatimest has caught a bad break (no pun intended) in being leaked in poor quality.Some of the nuance must be lost, some of the sonic beauty must be poorly represented.And for that, I am truly sorry.But equally hopeful! For in a mere two months we will be able to experience the album in all of its grandeur.I was a Grizzly Bear fan before this, but not a passionate one.Getting a taste of Veckatimest has merely whetted my appetite, making me eagerly anticipate its official release.

Until then, however, I have to declare Animal Collective the winner once more.Grizzly Bear has put up a fantastic fight.Animal Collective knocked out Heartless Bastards in Round 1 of the Album of the Year Showdown, but here in Round 2 it’s a split decision with a slight victory going to Animal Collective.When the dust settles, Merriweather Post Pavilion will likely get more spins from me, and will stay with me longer, but I predict a long healthy relationship with the boys from Grizzly Bear.

If you haven’t heard Veckatimest, I’d encourage waiting for the real deal – the first time hearing an album is special, and when you get a crack at one as good as this it’s worth the wait.If you can’t wait, you eager beavers you, at least promise yourself that you will revisit the disc when it’s at its best.It’ll be worth it.

Chris Barth writes a weekly Thinking Man feature here at Pretty Much Amazing.  You can read his more succinct daily entries at his blog, The Stu Reid Experiment.