I happened to be listening to the Carpenter’s 1978 Christmas Portrait just before Grizzly Bear’s new Veckatimest. I’d say that the two fit together strangely well, except that there wasn’t really anything particularly strange about it. Anal, jazzy, white-bread folk pop; 30 years on, the kids still love it. Even if it’s not exactly surprising, though, the Carpenters comparison does concentrate the mind. Like any self-respecting indie geniuses, the members of Grizzly Bear love to refer to geniuses past; the piano plinking, incongruous honking, and ravishing harmonies of “Two Weeks” tips the hat to Brian Wilson, the psychedelia-plus-cutely-thumping-drumming on “All We Ask” waves to Lennon/McCartney. But they rarely indulge in the Beach Boys’ wiggy humor, nor do they ever rock flat-out the way the Beatles often did. Richard and Karen Carpenter aren’t referenced as directly, but as the purest avatars of precious, white, and neutered, they are in some ways closer spiritual kin.
Not that precious, white, and neutered is a bad thing. The demi-classical plainchant opening to “Dory” is all three, and is probably my favorite moment on Veckatimest—and also the moment that could have been lifted almost as-is from Christmas Portrait. The careful arrangement, the crystalline purity, suggests a deliberate erasure of soul through assiduous scrubbing. But you can’t actually scrub out soul; the traces remain, haunting the album like a sad, lobotomized ghost. “We’ll drop her down to the bottom… Oh the water is still in a wilder deep/we’ll swim around like two dories.” The ignored depths give the sunlit surface its poignance and menace. Grizzly Bear could be dropping Karen Carpenter down there, smiling with her as she drowns.