Department of Eagles

In Ear Park

Rating: 2.5

Label: 4AD

When I was first played Department of Eagles’ Whitey on the Moon UK EP, I had no idea what I was hearing, but I knew I liked it. I kept asking my friend, “Who is this band now?” And he kept answering in kind, “It’s still Department of Eagles.” Not only was the album fantastic but each song sounded completely different; I couldn’t tell if this group was into hip-hop, electronic music, hardcore punk, rockabilly, or what.

Department of Eagles is now back and trying their damndest to be better than ever. Right off their first national appearance on television – The Conan O’Brien Show, no less – these boys (who first met as freshmen roommates at NYU) have grown up a bit. One half of them – Daniel Rossen – became involved with hot indie group Grizzly Bear, a phenom in the hep Williamsburg crowd of scarves and knit caps, earth-tone colors, mustaches, tight pants and whatnot. The latest of two full-length albums, In Ear Park, took four years while Rossen tinkered with the other member of DoE, Fred Nicolaus. They clearly listened to a heck of a lot of Van Dyke Parks, probably their greatest influence, as told by the opening eponymous track. Its swelling orchestration mixes marvelously with dolorous, drippy vocals and a stark, sparse guitar throughout. This juxtaposition of dense production with almost minimalist vocals and emotive tone runs throughout DoE’s sophomore album.

By the third track, “Phantom Other,” we already get the point. The same vibrant enthusiasm that dashed us through the opening ambrosial tracks wanes, as “Phantom” builds to a struggling, slowed polka beat. Suddenly, I remember that it’s true: as with the Whitey EP, the great songs are great, but the not-so-great songs are… less than inferior. Department of Eagles, in 2008, seem to be attempting to be yet another one of these bands in a long string of pseudo-revolutionaries who wish to impress all of us all of the time.

However, with a rough-and-tumble cello, the album picks up a bit with “Teenagers,” a clear throwback to Parks’ “Laurel Canyon” of yesteryear, suggesting the record will digress into an impressionistic soundscape, never to be played on the radio. These Eagles soar a little too high this time, forgetting the story of their counterpart Icarus. Perhaps four years was a little too long to spend on such a piece; the clear lack of focus on this one alternates between giving us too much and not nearly enough. It’s truly all over the place, and everywhere at once… almost as though Rossen and Nicolaus, along with Grizzly Bear cohorts Chris Taylor and Chris Bear, are yanking us through Ear Park without allowing us a moment to catch our breath and really take in the scenery, breathe in the crisp air. Instead, we’re left breathless and tired.

It’s time for DoE to unshackle themselves from the Brian Wilson claque and give us something more from the future than from the past. I believe they can do it, and eagerly anticipate their next album. Or, if they do decide to stay in line with the mad conjurer of the Beach Boys, perhaps the most important influence on American music of all time, then Rossen and Nicolaus need to spend more time listening to Wilson’s more mature and accessible acolytes, fellow electronic folk brethren such as Granddaddy and the Notwist, perhaps even Keane. Only by doing so will Department of Eagles learn to infuse more of a concentrated pop sensibility into their far too private repertoire.

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