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With half of its core duo hailing from the universally lauded indie outfit Grizzly Bear, many fans will assuredly approach Department of Eagles with a sideband-stigma. Born as a dorm-room project between Daniel Rossen and Fred Nicolaus, the group was pushed behind the curtain when Rossen joined Grizzly Bear and helped write their stunning 2006 release, Yellow House. The album’s haunting atmosphere and melodic sensibilities earned adoration from fans and peers alike, culminating in a summer 2008-slot opening for Radiohead. While Grizzly Bear held the indie spotlight, Rossen and Nicolaus were still passing ideas back and forth behind the scenes, slowly crafting what would become Department of Eagles’ sophomore outing, In Ear Park.
Dedicated to Rossen’s late father, In Ear Park ruminates heavily on past experiences and childhood memories as though breathing life into the halcyon reveries that sleep beneath faded photographs. The results are engrossing from the opening track, where Rossen handles a tide of finger-picked guitar like aural watercolors to recreate a seaside-remembrance. “If you listen, you can hear the waves,” he invites us, just before they break on a cathartic waltz of booming toms and orchestral flourishes. The following song, “No One Does It Like You,” proves a vibrant pop gem that enlivens nostalgic tones with inimitable songwriting. Its vocal melodies bloom in sepia-tone shades while an upright bass skips along to a 1920’s cadence wearing a victrola fuzz.
While fans of Yellow House will likely be familiar with Rossen’s encompassing execution on these songs, they will be pleasantly surprised to hear that the Nicolas-penned tracks stand next to his cohorts with aplomb. “Teenagers,” the album’s most lighthearted track, sways with the endearing awkwardness of its namesake before maturing into its boldly orchestrated breakdown. In contrast, “Herring Bone” hems together a striking simile between family generations and coat stitches with an elegantly melancholy piano line.
As the album pulls to an end, there’s no doubt that Department of Eagles have not only cast off Grizzly Bear’s shadow but also offered one of this year’s most enthralling musical experiences. In Ear Park is a sprawling daydream that recalls The Beatles and Paul Simon in its ability to capture emotional immensity within the palatable brevity of a pop song. It’s an achievement that speaks highly of Fred Nicolaus’s musical future, while solidifying Daniel Rossen as one of indie music’s defining voices.