The New York duo of Daniel Rossen and Fred Nicolaus may have been elevated to greater prominence by the critical acclaim meted out to Rossen’s other band Grizzly Bear, but Department Of Eagles should be warmly praised on their own merit. Fans of Grizzly Bear’s 2009 magnum opus Veckatimest will find familiar pleasures here – particularly in the sophisticated vocal harmonies and the lush, elaborate arrangements. Rossen and Nicolaus have an obvious affection for vintage Americana, as well as for the compositional ambition of Van Dyke Parks circa Song Cycle.
There is, however, an assertiveness and aggression in some of these discarded works that Grizzly Bear largely eschew. ‘Flip’ is full of punchy staccato acoustic guitar playing and some particularly menacing chords. The B-side While We’re Young is an immediate, refreshing blast of energy and melody, a striking pop song that could easily have been lost amongst the group’s more cerebral material. With near-military drumming and a lyric that serves as a call-to-arms for youthful abandon, it’s in a time honoured tradition of songwriting, but with Rossen and Nicolaus’ peculiarly archaic spin. Recorded by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor, it has a clear, involving sound.
It is perhaps arguable that it is too early in the group’s career to be releasing a collection of cast-offs. With only two albums to their name, it’s a long way before Department Of Eagles should be undergoing the boxed set or reissue treatment. Archives is therefore a necessarily slight album, featuring five very brief studio sketches with five fully fleshed songs taken from sessions recorded in January 2006.
Perhaps for this very reason, however, Archives is a good deal more fascinating than the average contractual obligation rarities set. It captures a still very recent period in the group’s development, when they were branching away from the home recording techniques of their debut The Cold Nose into something where warm acoustic sounds and considered arrangements took the group into very different sonic territory. Already, this sounds like the work of a completely different group – the electronic concerns of The Cold Nose have vanished.
Rossen may now view these recordings as tentative failures but they demonstrate clearly the way in which the ground was prepared for 2008’s majestic In Ear Park album. The greater immediacy in a number of tracks also demonstrates another, previously unheard side of the group. Even at this early stage, the group have developed both a disarming accuracy in their arrangements and execution and also a talent for penning unpredictable and audacious melodies that at times seem reminiscent of the great, much missed Elliott Smith. Grand Army Plaza takes all manner of compelling twists and turns and the full bodied harmonies of Deadly Disclosure hint at Rossen’s role within Grizzly Bear.
The Practice Room sketches represent Rossen’s first attempts at arranging and are mostly skeletal works that build from vulnerable piano motifs. They are insubstantial but also impressionistic and diverting. Sequenced in an order that begins with the least developed and builds towards fuller expressions of intent, they break the flow of the songs in a way that is airy and satisfying rather than frustrating.
Archives will not compensate for the lack of new Department Of Eagles material. Indeed, it appears that the project will be on a long hiatus whilst Rossen is preoccupied by Grizzly Bear. Yet it does have merit as a fascinating document of a band veering out of its comfort zone, starting to make what had previously been the music of their dreams.