Department of Eagles’ two principals — Daniel Rossen (also of Grizzly Bear) and Fred Nicolaus — met in the early part of last decade while attending NYU. They traded demos and decided to record together, resulting in a handful of 7-inch singles and a debut album that sounded exactly like what it was: a couple of college students with too much time, too many inside jokes, some pirated recording software, and a love of every genre under the sun. Yet in 2008, the duo released In Ear Park, one of the year’s best records and a nice appetizer for Grizzly Bear’s breakout 2009. How did Department of Eagles go from dorm-room jokesters to chamber-pop maestros seemingly overnight? This odds-and-ends collection seeks to connect the dots, rounding up early sound collages by Daniel Rossen as well as the duo’s first attempts at serious songwriting.
Archive serves as a neat window into the past, right at the moment that Rossen’s compositional quirks began to form. His songs for both of his bands have always had a slight jazz angle to them, and the five piano “sketches” included on this album sound like warped, slow-motion Tin Pan Alley instrumentals. The sketches are studies in layering and building sound collages, with walls of vocal harmonies complementing the unfolding piano chords. “Sketch 1” is of particular interest to Grizzly Bear fans, as the cascading notes would go on to form the basis for “Easier,” the lead-off track from Yellow House. These experiments are quick and simple, but the melodies are still superb, if somewhat undercooked.
On the fully written songs, Department of Eagles are a bit hit and miss. “Deadly Disclosure” and “Grand Army Plaza” meander, packed with interesting sounds but not enough hooks, and it’s obvious that these two songs were probably earlier in the band’s chronology. Rossen’s idiosyncratic style is apparent on “While We’re Young,” a shuffling choral exploration that’s both ghostly and deceptively catchy. Rossen’s quavering voice lends itself well to the classic-sounding melody of “Golden Apple,” the band’s first dip into the type of experimental orchestration that it would perfect on In Ear Park. Yet the “a ha” moment arrives with “Brightest Minds.” It’s a propulsive and dark folk tune full of the kinds of twists and turns that Rossen excels at, constantly leaving the listener guessing as to where the song will end up next. The duo’s array of talents is wrapped up in the “Minds,” the stellar missing link in a somewhat beguiling but fascinating discography.
Music critics love to analyze the connection between Points A and C in an artist’s career; analysis puts the music into an easy-to-understand perspective. Archive acts as this brief glimpse into the evolution of a celebrated songwriter and a band, yet with the quality and the high level of music geekery required, it’s obvious that this one’s intended for the superfans.