Live: Grizzly Bear's Intimate Club Music
Sad discovery: no actual grizzly bears in this band
Grizzly Bear + Beach House Bowery Ballroom March 7, 2007
I guess Grizzly Bear never play encores, but they played a quick one last night. As they were coming out, one Grizzly Bear guy sent heartfelt thanks out to their two similarly woozy opening acts, Beach House and the Papercuts. "He's a sensitive guy," said another Grizzly Bear guy. "We all are." And it's true; I can't think of the last time I saw a band that projected such constant fragility. Or actually, I can: Cat Power, back when she was in her running-out-of-the-club-crying stage. But Grizzly Bear's fragility isn't the crippling kind; it's more of a deep and abiding interest in exploring the places where fear and love intersect, which is the big reason why they could cover the Crystals' "He Hit Me" without having it come off like a putrid example of the indie-rock ironic cover. In fact, "He Hit Me" was far and away the highlight of Grizzly Bear's set last night, partly because the band tapped so unexpectedly into the song's warm, tragic vulnerability and party because Grizzly Bear sounds a lot better when someone forces their gorgeous blips of sound into an actual pop-song structure. The band's big thing is to take all these archaic elements (folk-music plucks, barbershop harmonies, hymnlike sighs) and arrange them into loose, sprawling compositions that stretch upward and outward as far as they can go. But those song structures exist for a reason, and sometimes Grizzly Bear songs can begin to sound like collections of pretty noises haphazardly arranged into indulgent soup; that's the big reason why I never really took to Yellow House, the 2006 album that a whole lot of critics seem to love.
Live, the band's amber diffusion made more sense. Actually, they reminded me of the Catholic church my family went to when I was a kid; it had huge vaulted ceilings and intricate stained-glass windows and bas-relief Stations of the Cross carvings and musty smells and a big pipe-organ at the back, and it always felt mysterious and inviting. (Not hurting the impression: in their mad instrument-swapping, one of the Grizzly Bear guys brought out an autoharp, and I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone try to play that instrument outside of church. He didn't seem to know how to play the thing, but still.) At their best, Grizzly Bear evoke that same feeling, and their chimes and flutes and electronic sustain-effects lent a low-key grandeur to their noodles and turned their rare forays into psychedelically Floydian thud-riffage into devastating bomb-drops. It's also really nice to hear an indie-rock band trying to do more with their voices than the now-standard Modest Mouse scrape-whine. But this stuff can also get powerfully boring when it doesn't connect, and a jammed-full Bowery Ballroom is a bad place to be bored. If Grizzly Bear stop dicking around with time signatures and turn their beautiful sounds into actual songs more often, I'll totally be on their side. As it stands, they don't seem to need me; any band that can cause an awed hush in the fucking Bowery Ballroom must be doing something right.
Voice feature: Andy Beta on Grizzly Bear
No awed hushes for Beach House, unfortunately. When I saw the Baltimore dreampop duo at CMJ last year, they were playing at the Fix, the dusty coffee shop attached to the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix, and I wrote that I'd never see them anywhere else ever again. The Fix was just a perfect place for the band's hazy reverbed-out slow-jams; the organ sounds seemed to bleed out of the dark wood, and Victoria Legrand sounded like she was sitting right next to me, mostly because she pretty much was. I should've stayed true to my word. Beach House makes perfect music for sleeping and making out and washing dishes; it's sad and slow and intimate, and I can't imagine it could ever really come through undiluted live, at least not in a setting less inviting than a late-afternoon at an uncrowded Fix. At the Bowery Ballroom last night, they looked like they'd been violently torn out of their proper context. I went through a month or so last year when I couldn't fall asleep without their self-titled album playing in the background, so it was tough to see these songs, beautiful as they still were, falling so flat. Legrand seemed to be losing her voice at the beginning of the set; she got it back, but she still seemed tense and harried, not good impression to give when the music is so languid. And when the and invited some guy from the Papercuts out to replace their usual click-track with live drums on one song, it had the unexpected effect of making them sound like Beirut. Beach House is a band built for tiny venues, but they're starting to justifiably gain popularity, and they're going to have to figure out ways to negotiate the balance between the private and the communal. That's a tough position to be forced into, but it's just one of those things.
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