In Ear Park is a colorful and expansive album, an intimate and personal collection of songs; much of the material that Daniel brought to In Ear Park draws on memories from his childhood, especially those relating to his father, who passed away in 2007 and to whom the album is dedicated (the title track is a nickname for a park in Los Angeles that the two used to visit). Many of Fred's contributions relate to similar themes of nostalgia and mortality, giving the album at times an elegiac feel. In Ear Park is also full of joyful moments, lush production and concise songwriting. From the early demos to the final mix, it took roughly four years for the group to complete this new collection of eleven songs.
Review by Heather Phares
Department of Eagles' work from when they were still known as Whitey on the Moon UK was repackaged so much that when In Ear Park was released, it felt like the band had a much bigger discography than they actually did. The Whitey on the Moon UK LP (which became The Cold Nose after the band's name change) was based on the same core set of songs, give or take some bonus tracks, that Daniel Rossen and Fred Nicolaus recorded in college with their friends as their only intended audience. In Ear Park is Department of Eagles' first full-fledged, self-contained album, and it shows just how far the pair has come since their early days. Their playful, detailed approach to crafting sounds remains, but Rossen's stint in Grizzly Bear helped hone his songwriting skills, and life experiences enriched them: In Ear Park was inspired by his childhood, dedicated to his late father, and named after what he called one of his favorite places to go as a boy. The band frames these very personal observations in experimental, symphonic/acoustic/electronic pop, using its grandiosity to convey the power of memories. "In Ear Park"'s rippling guitars conjure up a far-off, sun-dappled yesterday, and the way its backing vocals and waltz rhythms swell capture the way a memory can completely immerse someone. Van Dyke Parks' widescreen sound is a major influence, especially on the excellent "Teenagers," which, with its elegantly woozy guitars, pianos, woodwinds, and '20s style megaphone vocals, feels nostalgic for a time much longer ago than when either Rossen or his father would have been teenagers. Similarly, Rossen's dreamy warble of a voice sounds older than his years, particularly on "Herringbone," where he sings "when you are gone, you are gone." The oddness of his vocals is a perfect fit for the dazzling amount of stuff going on in these songs -- which, not surprisingly since Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor and Chris Bear play on it, recalls Rossen's work with his other band. "Phantom Other" builds from simple vocals and acoustic guitar to bubbling keyboards, massive guitars, and drums, while "Classical Records" incorporates footsteps, toy piano, and double bass into its darkly trippy swirl. In Ear Park's sonic flights of fancy are impressive in their own right, but even more so on the most tightly structured songs, such as the haunting standout "No One Does It Like You," a bouncy, wistful homage to '60s pop that's so yearning, it seems to be nostalgic for nostalgia. The album doesn't finish as strongly as it began -- "Waves of Rye" and "Therapy Car Noise" feel formless compared to In Ear Park's first half -- but this album is a big step forward for Department of Eagles, a playground of sound that celebrates the pull of memories and music.
Department of Eagles:
In Ear Park
Department of Eagles have the kind of convoluted, meandering backstory that could squash a less compelling band. Before he joined Grizzly Bear in 2004, Daniel Rossen was splicing together samples and bits of unearthed sound with his NYU roommate, Fred Nicolaus; the duo's collages were released, in 2003, as Department of Eagles' eerie, twittering debut, The Cold Nose. That record was followed, in 2006, by a remix album and preceded by a series of vinyl-only singles, under the name Whitey and the Moon UK (also the original title of The Cold Nose). Not long after its release, Rossen partnered with Ed Droste and Grizzly Bear and the Department of Eagles project was put on hiatus-- until late 2007, when the DOE duo, now enlisting contributions from Rossen's Grizzly Bear brethren Chris Bear and Chris Taylor, began recording again.
Unlike Department of Eagles' earlier output, which was heavily focused on sound art and electronic pastiche, In Ear Park is a sprawling pop record (complete with guitars, piano, horns, banjo, and more) that evokes Sgt. Pepper's, Sung Tongs, Van Dyke Parks, and Gene Clark. Like any good sonic experiment, In Ear Park extends with each listen, and things that once sounded small-- the piano bits on "Teenagers", the opening fuzz of "No One Does It Like You", the noirish echoing footsteps sampled in "Classical Records"-- become epic on the fourth or fifth spin, as the album swells and expands.
In Ear Park is dedicated to Rossen's late father, and while the album is hardly mournful, it is infused with a kind of omnipresent melancholy that occasionally tempers its sunshine ("I laughed so hard I fell down," Rossen sings in "No One Does It Like You". "I curse these legs I walked on.") Opener and title track "In Ear Park" begins with high, twitchy acoustic guitar, which eventually gives way to an unsteady, paranoid haze; this is Department of Eagles at their freak-folkiest, and it's impossible not to hear the mesmeric whirl of the Incredible String Band (occasionally, Rossen's voice-- wispy and soft-- even sounds a bit like Robin Williamson's). Elsewhere, the band is more straightforward (reinforcing Rossen's claim that some of this material was "too personal" for Grizzly Bear)-- the ominous "Around the Bay" is a nice slice of gothic-folk, with its acoustic strums, thunderstorm percussion, and sharp, threatening vocals.
Unlike a lot of side projects, Department of Eagles are remarkably self-sufficient-- possibly because Rossen and Nicolaus' partnership predates the current incarnation of Grizzly Bear. The breather between their earlier work and In Ear Park has paid off, helping Rossen and Nicolaus craft a rich, disorienting new direction for Department of Eagles. Ambitious and complex, it's stuffed with cocooning harmonies and shimmering, sunlight-smacking-the-Pacific melodies-- a languid, easy West Coast record (think Randy Newman or SMiLE), infused with classic East Coast anxiety.
- Amanda Petrusich, October 7, 2008