Oct 06, 2008, 06:48AM

Eagles Before Bear

The Department of Eagles’ In Ear Park can’t help but seem like a side project of Daniel Rossen’s other band, Grizzly Bear.

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Watching Daniel Rossen and his old NYU roommate Fred Nicolaus walk around Chinatown in Lower Manhattan playing songs for their 2007 Department of Eagles Blogotheque Take Away Show is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it foregrounds the jazzy folkiness that Rossen brings to his other band, Grizzly Bear, in songs like "Little Brother" and "On a Neck, On a Spit" from 2006's Yellow House, the album that turned Grizzly Bear from post-Microphones lo-fi up-and-comers into the 60s-nostalgia experimental psych-pop band that have played with Radiohead, TV on the Radio, and Paul Simon (yeah, that's right, Paul fucking Simon). But it also lets you understand how much of the production, both on Yellow House and past Grizzly Bear albums, as well as on the Department of Eagles' In Ear Park (out Oct. 7 on 4AD) is the work of Chris Taylor (Grizzly Bear bassist/electronicist), who Rossen brought in to record and produce the album. Chris Bear (Grizzly Bear drummer) also plays on the album—so that makes In Ear Park 3/4 of a Grizzly Bear album, anyway.

The title track that kicks off In Ear Park, a live version of which was recorded for Beggars Group's DUMBO Sessions, builds from soft guitar and effects to a beautiful pop waltz with backing vocal harmonies. The next three songs: "No One Does It Like You," which the band played on their television debut on Late Night with Conan O'Brien a couple days ago, "Phantom Other," and Nicolaus' own "Teenagers," which sounds like about 15 Van Dyke Parks songs I know and love, are the best the album has to offer. "Phantom Other" starts with just Rossen and an acoustic guitar, with full drums and bass coming in at about two minutes, driving the song almost to frantic collapse before it returns to just Rossen and Nicolaus singing "Wake up, wake up/We've got to get up."

The remainder of the album falls off into the some occasionally mismanaged folktronica, as in the horns at the end "Around the Bay," and the last unnecessary minute and a half of "Classical Records," full of piano, chimes, shakers, and six or seven other instruments, making it a song that, like "Therapy Car Noise," the parlor music version of Olivia Tremor Control's "Green Typewriters" sequence, probably should have been left off the album.

Influences abound: Summerteeth-era Wilco on "Waves of Rye," early Randy Newman on "Herring Bone." It ends up a little tiring, particularly with the (albeit pleasant) monotonousness of Rossen's voice—Nicolaus isn't given enough frontman opportunity, and there's not enough back-and-forth to really make some of the songs work. Rossen works best when he trades off on vocals with someone else, as he does with Ed Droste in Grizzly Bear, who's a more confident singer and has a better range.

The album comes together again though for the last two songs, the six-minute long "Floating on the Lehigh," which drifts from quiet 70s folk revival ballad to electric Paul McCartney-ish rocker, and "Balmy Night," which brings back the banjo that you used to hear in earlier Grizzly Bear. It's an enjoyable album, and a definite improvement on the roughness of earlier Department of Eagles albums (back when they were still going by the name Whitey on the Moon UK). But it fails to match up to Rossen's Grizzly Bear work, which is an obvious, if unfair (considering Department of Eagles was around first), comparison. Catch Department of Eagles next week in NYC: a record release show at The Bell House in Brooklyn on the 6th, and at "Revenge of the Bookeaters," with Zach Rogue, Thao Nguyen, and, yeah, that's right, Paul fucking Simon, at Town Hall on the 7th.

  • Very good music piece (Zack Kaufmann's one of your best), save the worship of Paul Simon. (I'm assuming that's not satire.) It's bad enough that Simon was about the one bad thing in "Annie Hall," but most of his songs post S&G sucked, except "Me and Julio."

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  • Ah, come on, you didn't like Graceland? How about "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover?"

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  • Nah, in fact I hated "50 Ways." I appreciated the impetus behind "Graceland," but I suppose Simon is just a problem for me. You know how certain artist just get under your skin. That's Paul Simon for me.

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  • Fair enough.

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