"Yellow House isn’t Grizzly Bear’s most essential album, nor their most popular, but it is possibly the most important to the trajectory of their career."
Words by Gio Musso, Rough Trade NYC
For those exposed to Grizzly Bear through the 2009 classic “Two Weeks”, listening to the rest of their discography at first requires an adjustment of expectations. Not because “Two Weeks” is their best work, but because the song has always been somewhat of a misrepresentation of the band itself. Most Grizzly Bear songs could best be described as growers, like miniature worlds one inhabits and appreciates with more time spent inside. It isn’t avant-garde or especially difficult to connect with, but to the legion of teenagers exposed to Grizzly Bear through commercials, Pandora playlists, or even Jay-Z’s noted fandom, they’re one of the first bands encountered that requires a degree of patience.
Originally conceived as a solo project for Ed Droste’s psych-folk musings following a break-up, he added drummer Christopher Bear for the finishing touches of their debut Horn of Plenty. The songs are hazy, lo-fi confections, mostly due to an admitted lack of recording technique. Pleasurable as they are, the tracks display little of the gravitas the band would grow into. From Yellow House’s opening moments, it announces its transcendence of these humble origins. Their first release on Warp Records, the now fully fleshed-out Grizzly Bear fully embraces their potential. What was once dampened by cheap equipment now stretches into high-fidelity widescreen. On opener “Easier”, strings and woodwinds seep into the mix, as a swirling accumulation of vocal coos slowly fills the cracks. A cinematic glow-up for sure, but it’s not done yet. Yellow House’s true surprise comes from the first voice to take precedent which, instead of the haunted croon of Droste, is the woodsy, brittle vocals of new member Daniel Rossen.
One of two additions: Rossen joined the band from the duo Department of Eagles, as well as multi-instrumentalist Chris Taylor who would serve as Grizzly Bear’s principal producer. It’s here that Grizzly Bear’s sound expands, becoming denser, thornier, and more intricate. Taylor, the band’s long-time secret weapon, is the catalyst to their upgrade as he employs the sounds of saxophone, autoharp, banjo, glockenspiels, etc. to construct grander sonic textures. Recorded and named after Droste’s mother’s home in Cape Cod, Taylor took advantage of the recording space to form lush environments and decorate them with contrasting sounds of contemporary electronics and organic-sounding woodwinds.
An emphasis on contrast is apparent throughout Yellow House as it frequently juxtaposes elements of modern and classical, beauty and tragedy, and scope and intimacy. The production sounds massive, yet never succumbs to gigantism. While large sections of the album are stripped-down and bare, the vast spaces the album surrounds them with creates an overwhelming sense of isolation. Songs like “Lullabye” and “On a Neck, On a Spit” are rich, multi-part constructions, but use sparse lyrical choices and repetition as an emotional throughline. It helps that the individual voices of Grizzly Bear are so instantly evocative, sounding not unlike the world’s saddest barbershop quartet. Droste has always taken center stage, and rightfully so as his tenor exhibits an inimitable sorrow, but it’s the inclusion of the three others that gives Grizzly Bear a definitive voice.
Never is this more apparent than on the album’s crowning achievement “Knife”: the most comprehensive example of their collective abilities, as well as the album’s most accessible track. Grizzly Bear’s best songs have often sounded like demented takes on classic pop music. Here, it’s a 50s-throwback ballad, ripe with lilting guitar fifths and eerie vocal harmonies used to accentuate its venomous subject matter. Contrasting the lovelorn atmosphere of its arrangement and Droste’s duplicitously sincere delivery with a rather violent depiction of romantic deceit. It’s a cruel song, particularly for how seductive it is, but it admirably doesn’t feel the need to reconcile with itself. Instead, “Knife” lingers on its vile tendencies, welcoming potential misinterpretations while refusing to confirm them. It’s this moral opaqueness that enriches the complexity of the work, not just on a compositional level but on an emotional one as well.
Often, the songs of Yellow House appear as ghosts trapped inside and wandering about. Songs like “Plans” and “Little Brother” amble around with a melancholic grace, while closer “Colorado” builds on some droning piano chords to a climax of baroque pop beauty that Grizzly Bear would revisit with their following records. But quite literally is this the case of “Marla”: a waltz written by and performed in tribute of Droste’s great aunt who drank herself to death in the aftermath of a failed singing career. Marla’s spirit hangs over the song, permeating through Taylor’s otherwordly flourishes and string arrangements from Owen Pallett. It’s a touching gesture to give Marla’s art a second life, yet when slowed down and reworked to fit the album as it is, it’s also devastating to listen to.
Yellow House isn’t Grizzly Bear’s most essential album, nor their most popular, but it is possibly the most important to the trajectory of their career. Released at the tail end of summer in 2006, when indie rock was in a period of change, it drew immediate acclaim. After a string of disappointing albums and career flameouts, the sounds of the post-punk revival were quickly usurped by more conscious, forward-thinking acts riding waves of blog hype and Best New Music designations from Pitchfork. At the center of the genre were no longer retro-rock choons, but meticulously arranged compositions. There exists Yellow House. A transitional record in so many ways, helping build the foundation that enabled contemporaries like Vampire Weekend, Animal Collective, and even Grizzly Bear’s follow-up Veckatimest to later flirt with mainstream success.
As it appears today, Grizzly Bear is finished. Since the release of 2017’s underrated Painted Ruins, the band stayed quiet as rumors of their break-up were tossed about until Droste confirmed his departure to pursue becoming a therapist (as well remain one of indie rock’s most joyous Instagram presences). Thankfully, they’ve left a discography that reveals its merit more and more with each passing day. Perhaps the greatest contradiction of Yellow House, for all its formalism and fussy architecture, is how approachable it is. While its ability to resonate was apparent from the get-go, how it continues to reveal new depths keeps it so fascinating to return to again.
Celebrate fifteen years of Yellow House’s release with an anniversary edition release on clear vinyl.