Daniel Rossen

I wanted to make sure I talked about a variety of things on this blog so this post is going to be about bands called Grizzly Bear, Department of Eagles, and my favourite musician in the whole world, Mr Daniel Rossen. I first heard Grizzly Bear probably about 4 years ago. It took me a while, I have to say. Now they’re pretty much all I listen to. I have to force myself not to put them on my Ipod because they’re literally all I will listen to if I do. Listening to Grizzly Bear to me feels like taking the red pill. Music will never be the same again. It’s so hard to get excited about anything else now because I know it just won’t be as good. Before Grizzly Bear/After Grizzly Bear will be a huge defining point for me, not just in music, but in my life. To me, the principal songwriting force in Grizzly Bear is Daniel Rossen. Actually, the band share creative duties between the four of them, with the lion’s share going to the two singers: Daniel and Ed Droste. Ed’s written some great songs (All We Ask, Two Weeks, for example) and they’re all part of what makes GB great. But Daniel’s style is like crack to me. He has a side project who are good enough to be considered alongside GB called Department of Eagles, and last year he released his first solo work, a short EP called Silent Hour/Golden Mile. He’s also released various covers down the years and they’re all fantastic: anything this man touches turns to gold. Today I’m going to talk about just three reasons why I love Daniel Rossen. I’m going to use some mildly geeky technical musical terms, don’t be intimidated.

  1. Interesting and unique chord progressions. The guy has a background in jazz theory, and it shows in his approach to music. One of the most difficult things in music is making chord progressions sound new or different, or even finding new chord progressions. Rossen has this amazing ability to create a song using a chord, or a chord progression you’ve never heard before. Take, for example, ‘Floating on the Lehigh’ from Department of Eagle’s album, ‘In Ear Park’. This song contains 5 different ways of playing a D chord, all on the same melody. To understand why this is amazing you have to understand how hard it is to make something sound original with traditional chord progressions. Most bands and musicians stick to tried and tested chord progressions (this video by the Axis of Awesome demonstrates this perfectly: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5pidokakU4I). These chord progressions are so popular because they  provide enough musical and tonal harmony and conflict on their own that they basically do the work for you. You could sing pretty much any melody on top of a chord progression like this (the one demonstrated in the video), and provided it’s in tune,  it would sound catchy. Daniel Rossen manages to conjure melodies with chords using the same base note (in this case D), i.e. his chords might change only one or two notes yet he manages to make them sound worlds apart. It’s like if you were a painter and you were only using one colour, and you had to show contrast using the thinness of your brush, rather than the variety of your palate. This is pretty much unique in popular music, at least today. The Beatles and Radiohead are cut from the same cloth. Of course those jazz guys are geniuses, they’ve been doing things like this for decades. Another example is a song from his solo album: Saint Nothing. Most of the time when I’m listening to a song for the first time I can work out at least a chord or two if not the whole progression. This song threw me. I have never heard this opening chord progression in a song before or since. Saint Nothing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMG2jbvCr0Y&feature=kp. Floating On The Lehigh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tUSyLeGxeA8.
  2. Incredibly beautiful vocal harmonies. He thinks about not just which note to accompany the primary melody, but how long to hold it for, when to introduce the next one, whether to introduce more, how long to hold the first one, etc… It’s like a beautiful patchwork of voices. Check out the intro to his cover of Waterfall by the late Judee Sill (who I also urge you to listen to because she’s fantastic): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7IoqyxxvdzA. Or the intro to a Grizzly Bear song, Dory: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLlDoKdeG6Q. Another innovative thing Rossen does with harmonies is that, using his knowledge of music theory, he is able to to make the vocals go against the chords the guitar plays, in a harmonic way. By this, I mean he is able to use vocals to make a guitar chord sound completely different to what it is, like making a major chord sound minor and vice-versa. No One Does It Like You is a great example of this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cIWMWCcpO_Y.
  3. The last thing in this list is something very specific: something I like to call deceptive root notes. Most guitarists play chords  where the lowest note (also called the bass or root note) agrees with the chord. I.e. in any kind of C chord, C major, minor, diminished, whatever, the root note will almost always be a C. Daniel Rossen’s guitar work rarely follows this rule. One of his favourite techniques is to strum the root note then half a second later, the rest of the chord. However the first note he plays will very often not be the same as the note the chord belongs to. This is very cool because it starts you expecting one chord (and implicitly, one melody, one harmony) and then comes in with a completely different one. The best example of this is the first chord of the chorus (1:10) from this song, Phantom Other: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yd2qRn5Dn-o.

Well done for getting through all that, and thanks for reading! I’m going to see him at Union Chapel in August. I have never been this excited for a gig, ever.

2 thoughts on “Daniel Rossen

  1. I don’t know if you read this anymore but anyway. Few people seem to notice these things about musicians and songwriters. There are a few who I consider exceptional when it comes to inventive chord progressions; Brian Wilson, Kevin Barnes (Of Montreal), Gustav Ejstes (Dungen), Chris Cohen and Elliott Smith. If you haven’t heard them, check them out.
    There’s something about certain chord formations that bring out feelings of ecstasy for me. One chord formation often used by all of these musicians but not others is where the bass plays the 5th in a major chord instead of the root. Another one is where the bass plays the 7th in a major chord instead of the root. Do you recognize these?
    Really good text btw, Daniel Rossen is a genius.

    • Thanks so much for your comment. I haven’t visited this blog in a while but I got an email letting me know about your comment.

      I can get equally hysterical about a new chord progression that works perfectly. Another one I’ve come across recently which delighted me when I first heard it was Riviera Paradise by Stevie Ray Vaughan, I haven’t heard that anywhere else. And one I absolutely love (though it’s on piano not guitar) is the introduction to The All Golden by Van Dyke Parks.

      I know some music by Brian Wilson and Elliot Smith – I would love some recommendations for some of your favourite chord formations of theirs if you have any? I know very little by the other two – again, recommendations would be very welcome.

      Thanks again for your comment.

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