orn of Plenty, Grizzly Bear’s debut, was full of sea-shanties not meant for surface-singing but for the bottom. Then last year’s Yellow House showed the band had plenty more of the bends-like atmospherics where that came from. In fact, House was even more disorienting, more lush with its layering of noise, harmonies, and empty-room sounds. Sam Ubl, in his recent article “In Praise of Technique,” quite rightly praised the band’s “exquisite chops.” Simple fool that I am, I liked that it made me feel dizzy and delusional. Something like happy.
In a classic tide-over effort after the critical and popular, by indie standards, success of Yellow House, Grizzly Bear ponies up the Friend EP. Over ten tracks composed largely of covers and alternate versions of the band’s songs, Friend is, necessarily, a stop-gap document that won’t bring the band many new fans. Instead, especially in the various takes on past material, Grizzly Bear is relying on the fascination left for both Horn of Plenty and, especially, Yellow House to bring back listeners keen for a slight change of pace.
The difficulty there lies in just how minimally ‘altered’ these ‘alternatives’ are. “Shift,” for example, mines the same whispery, cold-mansion melodrama of the original, and “Alligator (Choir Version)”—though a little more noise is channeled into its rise here than on the original—still relies too much on the steady push toward its chorus to explore its many other corners. It’s not a fault, certainly, as the original was one of the most memorable on the debut, but with little newly uncovered but an extended coda that features Dirty Projects and Beirut’s Zach Condon, perhaps its greatest appeal lies in the strength of its guests. Likewise, “Little Brother (Electric)” scrapes off its atmospheric down to concentrate on sharper guitar chords at the start, and winds up losing so much of its rain-gazing feel. Pulled from the Japanese version of Yellow House, “Granny Diner” goes the other direction, choosing misty ambience over the original’s limber sense of forward motion and simply fumbles at sounds ‘til the end.
Fortunately, Friend’s underwhelming set of the band’s own standards is propped up by its covers and exclusives. “He Hit Me,” originally written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King and performed extensively during the band’s tour this year, uses Edward Droste’s pale falsetto and a patient, step-back guitar progression in place of the Crystals’ Spectorizing before bursting into a distorted wall of the band’s own. Though it’s a bit more overwhelming performed live, even on record the song gives you a sense of just how theater-full the band’s harmonizing can be. Daniel Rossen’s home recording of “Deep Blue Sea,” also a staple of the tour, is supposedly a traditional folk song, but given Rossen’s thumbskin voice and patient guitar picking, it’s quite a comfort in his hands. Like the best of the band, its melancholy is not so much a weight as a presence, a comforting, needle-and-spoon kind of gauze.
As for the covers, CSS turn “Knife” into a squelchy new-wave electro jam whose unrecognizability is its best defense, while Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox, present here in his Atlas Sound side-project, tweaks the same song into a clanking other-place of busted-clockworks and fat, slobbering dreamtones. Unlike the CSS version—left-field for left-field’s sake—it’s as messy and unsprung as the original was ethereal, but retains its psychedelic sense of empty (but not silent) space for an oddly fraternal moment of escape. Band of Horses’ respelling of “Plans” splits the difference, focusing on Grizzly Bear’s mesmeric take on Americana but playing it fiddle-straight and shit-eatin’-grin. Over just a banjo and saloon piano, Bridwell’s delivery is almost jocular, hamming up the hoedown a bit to approach the overarched, fun-time country of New Riders of the Purple Sage.
Ultimately, to be frank, you’re going to make as much of Friend as you’ve already made of Grizzly Bear. Fans may be disappointed in how close to the bone many of these ‘new’ versions sound, but there will probably be enough novelty in the rest of the material to make this one must-have for those still swoonin’ from Yellow House. A missed opportunity, or simply another welcome stash of songs from a band that seems to be getting a little bit more distinguished every time we hear them (almost)? For Grizzly Bear—so defined by their ambiguous sense of sonics—you know it ain’t quite that simple.