Review by Heather Phares
At 11 tracks long, Friend barely qualifies as an EP, and yet it's far too weird and scattered -- in the best possible way -- to work as a full-fledged Grizzly Bear album. As kitchen sink eclectic as Yellow House was polished and cohesive, Friend tosses new versions of songs from both Yellow House and Horn of Plenty in with new songs, covers, and cameos from some of the band's closest pals. The reworkings of Horn of Plenty tracks are some of the mini-album's most striking moments: "Alligator (Choir Version)" turns the song from homespun glitch-pop into trippy, thundering rock, with Beirut and the Dirty Projectors lending their voices to the aforementioned choir. "Shift" is just as fragile and spooky here as it was in its original version, but its expansiveness shows just how much Grizzly Bear's sound has grown -- literally -- since the Horn of Plenty days. On the flip side, the band distorts and deconstructs the songs from Yellow House almost beyond recognition. "Little Brother (Electric Version)" trades the original's delicate picking for huge riffs, while two of Yellow House's other definitive songs, "Knife" and "Plans," get makeovers courtesy of two bands that couldn't sound more different from Grizzly Bear or each other. CSS turns "Knife" into fizzy synth pop that actually sounds like a song by the Knife, while Band of Horses brings out the rustic heart of "Plans" with banjo and terrific close harmonies. Interestingly, the cover of "Knife" by Atlas Sound (the solo project of Deerhunter's Bradford Cox) comes the closest to Grizzly Bear's usual sound, if there is such a thing, out of anything on Friend. Grizzly Bear also contributes a cover, a striking version of "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)" that underscores the song's romance and menace -- as well as its wall of sound production -- while subverting it. Songs like this and the wild, untitled surf instrumental that closes Friend don't exactly fit together in any obvious way, other than showing that Grizzly Bear is no stranger to reinventing themselves. Still, their loose ends are more interesting, and often more satisfying, than many other bands' most ambitious, accomplished music.
It was only last fall that Grizzly Bear released their Warp Records debut, Yellow House, but the album feels much older. An impeccably crafted psychedelic folk record, it drifts from one dream-like passage to the next. Its lyrics draw on typical relationship fare, but the delicate instrumentation is otherworldly, evoking the pastoral scenery of antique storybook illustrations. That kind of careful attention to sonic detail isn't just a rarity in independent music right now-- it's practically anachronistic.
I revisited Yellow House recently because something about Grizzly Bear's Friend EP had made me curious: Although many of the new EP's tracks are credited as re-workings or alternate versions of Yellow House tunes (or of songs from the band's demo-esque debut Horn of Plenty), almost none of it sounds familiar. The tracklist suggests it's just your average collection of odds and ends, but it's a trick: Of the four older songs that Grizzly Bear re-arrange on Friend, three are so far removed from their earlier versions as to bear only the faintest connection to their origins-- and the one that isn't, "Shift", is improved so dramatically that it acquires a second life. In fact, ignore the three inconsequential covers from Grizzly Bear's indie rock contemporaries and what you have is a very well-disguised, 31-minute mini-LP of newly recorded (and largely newly written) material that makes "Knife"-- Yellow House's height of pop accessibility-- sound formless by comparison.
The schizophrenic appearance of Friend's tracklist makes it difficult to relay how the record hangs together as a unified piece, or detail the radical alterations that take place within its songs. But because these traits are what make the disc more than just a budget-priced Yellow House add-on, I'll risk looking like Grizzly Bear Fan #1 and go straight for the play-by-play:
01. "Alligator (Choir Version)" -- New recording (featuring Beirut and Dirty Projectors)
A segue of sorts on 2004's Horn of Plenty, the original "Alligator" amounted to a little more than a home demo. In that skeletal form, the song consisted only of a tiny, chiming keyboard and a Spiritualized-like vocal melody sung timidly by founding member Edward Droste. It also clocked in at under a minute-and-a-half. Here, the song is dramatically fleshed-out, decelerated, and detuned, gaining tremendous weight and conviction-- not to mention an additional four minutes. Extended through a series of cacophonous build-ups and releases, and an epic bridge in which ethereal vocal harmonies give way to imposing elephant-call horns, crashing cymbals, and fluttering piano, the song finally draws to a restful close that bears no similarity at all to its humble beginnings.
02. "He Hit Me" (Crystals cover) -- New recording
I've always hated this song. Since it was first recorded by the Crystals in 1962, "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)" has been retread to death as an ironic staple of anyone trying way too hard to be subversive. Although the shock value of its lyrics ("He couldn't stand to hear me say/ That I'd been with someone new/ And when I told him I had been untrue/ He hit me/ And it felt like a kiss") remain its only remarkable quality, it's continually dusted off and paraded around by those who don't know any better (Courtney Love, the Motels), and those who ought to (Spiritualized, Grizzly Bear). Fortunately, I was able to work past my biases and hear how Grizzly Bear reshape the Goffin/King flop as liberally as they do their own material: Writing in their own psych-drenched passages, the band reimagines the song's bouffant-haired innocence as a baroque-pop experiment redolent of the Zombies, the Hollies, or the Left Banke.
03. "Little Brother (Electric)" -- New recording
Though roughly the same length as the Yellow House version, Friend's "Electric" is written almost from scratch. Now a thundering pop powerhouse, it shows Grizzly Bear at the absolute peak of their present powers. Eviscerating the song's earlier structure, "Little Brother (Electric)" revisits just one of the original sections, building everything around it-- including its stunning, explosive fireworks finale-- from the ground up. Here, Grizzly Bear transform from purveyors of delicate fairytale psych to steamrolling rock juggernauts, resulting in the most immediate, accessible, and concrete track in their current catalog.
04. "Shift (Alternate Version)" -- New recording
"Shift"'s first incarnation was Horn of Plenty's stark highlight, standing firmly on its beautifully austere melody. And because it's the least modified song here, it provides the disc's best illustration of the band's growth as both arrangers and musicians. Only with this version's sizable improvements are the original's weaknesses revealed. At first a tinny, abrasively lo-fi recording, the song's dreary pacing was a slog. But here, "Shift" trades its icy plod for fireside warmth. Better paced and saturated in natural reverb, the song thaws out and blooms in Friend's most gorgeous moment: a newly appended eight-part vocal harmony cascading over guitars and pianos.
05. "Plans (Terrible vs. Nonhorse: Sounds Edit)" -- Remix
Throwing us for a loop, this 1:37 palate-cleanser-- a collaborative remix between Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor (aka Terrible) and ambient/noise artist Lucas Crane (aka Nonhorse)-- runs in the opposite direction from Friend's other material: Rather than rearranging Yellow House's pop-friendly "Plans" for maximum accessibility, they electrocute it. Using its peripheral sound effects to create a dissonant tangle of flute sounds, plucked banjo, and raw white noise, the song becomes a joking piss-take on the EP's overarching concept.
06. "Granny Diner" -- Previously unreleased
A perfect example of Friend's album-like sequencing, "Granny Diner" fades in from the static of the previous track. Opening with a drifting instrumental passage and ending with a radiant Abbey Road-like song fragment that falls somewhere between "Sun King" and "You Never Give Me Your Money", "Granny Diner"'s deadpan absurdist lyrics transcend their mundanity to become genuinely affecting through Droste's sincere, defeated vocals.
07. "Knife"(Covered by CSS)
08. "Plans" (Covered by Band of Horses)
09. "Knife" (Covered by Atlas Sound)
The Friend EP's only weakness, this three-song segment finds Grizzly Bear's camaraderie getting the better of them. Though the disc benefits commercially and promotionally from the band's decision to afford their peers an equal opportunity in reworking Yellow House material, it sells itself short as a worthy successor. Standing in stark contrast to Grizzly Bear's own reinventions, these curiosities only serve to disrupt Friend's otherwise seamless, cohesive flow.
As for the covers themselves, CSS turn in a competent electro-pop reading of "Knife" before Band of Horses utterly derail the record with a brutal Disney-ized bluegrass rendition of "Plans". Deerhunter's Bradford Cox, recording under his solo alias Atlas Sound, fares best: Taking cues from Panda Bear's lovely Person Pitch, his reverb-drenched take on "Knife" sends breezy vocal harmonies over chiming, unidentifiable instrumentation, breathing celestial new life into the band's most ubiquitous song.
10. "Deep Blue Sea" (Daniel Rossen Home Recording) -- New recording
Loosely based on an age-old folk traditional, the Grizzly Bear singer/guitarist's "Deep Blue Sea", along with "Little Brother (Electric)", marks Friend's peak of broadened accessibility. Let this loose in a Volkswagen commercial and there's no turning back. A signifier of how much headway the band has made over the past year in the way of perfect, focused melody, the sleepy acoustic lullaby gently tucks in Friend and turns out the light.
11. [Hidden Bonus Track]
Crashing in shortly after "Deep Blue Sea"'s pacific close, Friend's hidden bonus track is a jolting, last-minute surprise. A collaboration between Grizzly Bear and Beirut's Zach Condon, the raucous, fast-paced instrumental is one part Morricone spaghetti-western, two parts Sublime Frequencies field recording. The most staggering and left-of-center experiment from either band, the track sounds colossal despite its 83-second runtime. It also demonstrates the envelope-pushing Grizzly Bear can inspire, and how far they can travel outside their comfort zone without getting lost.
Then again, that's largely what Friend as a whole establishes: More than a willingness to share their spotlight with like-minded pals, the title evokes a strengthening artistic bond between four forward-looking musicians who, as this disc makes easy to forget, found each other just three years ago. That an EP of this nature would showcase such an extraordinary leap forward in conviction and virtuosity is practically unheard of-- after all, these things are typically treated as commercial dustbins for outtakes and leftover scraps. But Grizzly Bear is a different beast, and in putting the same care and devotion into this project as they would any other, they've shown that the title applies not just to their musical allies, but to their fans as well.
-Ryan Schreiber, November 06, 2007