Surrender Yourself To Grizzly Bear’s Sonic Bliss For KCRW’s Apogee Sessions REVIEW: GRIZZLY BEAR @ APOGEE STUDIOS 9/26/17
Santa Monica, CA- These days, staying current with a project during self-imposed hiatuses can be a sloping test of the attention span for fans who are barely satiated with the simple requirement of being content with what they already have. It is a tired dinner table conversation; the impact of new media and what it means to be an ‘artist’ in the forum of barreling through releases to keep the ADHD generations secure in their loyalty as consumers of a product. It has and will remain problematic for the legions of new groups putting themselves to bed with the dreams of the elusive overnight success, this speed-of-light transition between what is newly favorable and what is yesterday’s paper, but there are the few knights who slipped into the kingdom of longstanding worship before the tide turned, and quantity dethroned quality in a mutinous overthrow. Grizzly Bear is one of these victors, and they have returned to display why taking your time from a to b is just as important as skipping from a to z.
Enter “Painted Ruins,” the first studio album from the Grizzlies in five years. It would be redundant to pull out that age old music journalism mainstay of “this record finds so-and-so maturing as artists,” for the ‘Bear had authentic foresight (It’s worth noting here that “Horn of Plenty,” their 2004 debut, is seemingly much more of a lo-fi exploration of what they were to become, that is worth the spin if you weren’t aware of its existence, like myself) almost from the start. Instead, let’s ponder the idea of incubation, and the journey of continued expression without the guise of reinvention for the sake of press, or the possibility that what they’ve been doing for the length of their career wasn’t working, which isn’t the case. They’ve proved time and time again that their equation IS working, with each release ending in the summation of a feeling both familiar and fresh; the verse you’ve heard before, but not within the present circumstance of elapsed time or life lessons presented to learn or ignore. Track one, side one asks the question, “Were you even listening?” While the end of the effort leaves us with an arpeggiated S.O.S. atop a low crackle, mixed with a hopeful synth toning out into a future that is to be continued, hopefully sooner than prior absences.
Admittedly, I have never been the “must spend $3k at the merchandise table and listen to every release religiously” type of fan for this group, but that doesn’t mean that I have not appreciated their artisan blend of spastically orchestrated hooks periodically through the times I’ve been stuck in a van listening to whatever indie XM station was purging their singles, or stumbled serendipitously across a field at whatever music festival to the lure of “Two Weeks,” the inescapable smash from 2009 that soundtracked coffee house bowel movements in customer-only bathrooms repeatedly without death, unknowingly bringing this fly to the zapper. This approach of casual nonchalantness towards their unit would change over the course of the evening, specifically after getting acquainted with the new release on the hour long jaunt to Santa Monica, for a live preview that will leave goers to the nearing touring dates wishing that it hadn’t taken them so long for such a needed return.
The night, hosted by purveying tastemakers KCRW, who have been helping hidden acts find a platform, and larger staples crossover onto the plains of global domination, proved again that they remain a radar of unabashed culture as the master of ceremonies, DJ and radio host/personality Jason Bentley, took the mic to congratulate the involved teams on their 75th installment of the Apogee Sessions. Bentley, an effervescently handsome mate, dressed impeccably in an outstanding blazer that shone hot under the pinks and blues of the truss lighting overhead, had the grateful knack of a college graduate as he rambled down some of his favorite ghosts of show’s past, (Jim James continuously hugging a golden bear on stage, Nick Cave preaching to weeping mercenaries, Queens of the Stone Age turning the place on its head by making the sex and sweat of their chugging boner tunes come alive) before announcing that he’d be introducing one of his favorite groups to the stage in a matter of moments.
Apogee Studios offered the type of coziness necessary for pseudo industry events such as these, where suits can dress down and remember the days when they were on the other side of the records that they now green light for production. If you arrived early enough, you were lucky to split some time away from the finger foods and open bar to give yourself a walk-thru of the chicly lit entryway into the control room that has its mixing console sitting beneath a glass pane overlooking the mid-size live stage to a room of roughly 150 person capacity, when packed to the brim. An eclectic mix of minglers made the environment less stiff, as at times these highly coveted list spots in privately renowned venues showcasing epitomizing bands tend to bring wealth and prestige who distract from the reasons we all started listening to music in the first place, and I felt the home away from home feeling start to sink in after the digs were fully surveyed to find bits of ragtag kin sprinkled about groups of business titans loosening up after a long day of making magic happen with double fists of free champagne. The crowd was eager, first and foremost, which is as important as the performance itself, when said performers are about to unveil a new creation to a much smaller reverberation than they are, assuredly by now, used to playing.
After the gracious host was done passing around his vocalized certificates of accomplishments to the studio and its alumni, it was time for the main course to be served. A bit of stage banter helped the polar bear break the ice of an entranced room, in which Ed Droste (vocals) joked about probably not being able to match the “sweaty, sexy night club,” vibe that Queens of the Stone Age had apparently brought to a previous session. He wasn’t entirely wrong, as we were to find out, that it would be an entirely different kind of sex. The kind that climaxes in such an augmented way, where it leaves the suitors involved in the exchange in an accidental relationship, lovingly befuddled over what had just happened and how it had even gotten to that point. The laughter dissipates, and queue the docile chimes to take the hands of curiously bobbing heads, and lead them as shepherds to collectively become a swaying herd.
The first set is mainly composed of new material, leading off with my new personal favorite, “Four Cypresses,” written by Daniel Rossen (vocals, guitar) through the perspective of the Los Angeles homeless populace, and its inexplicable boom since he had left town and chosen the more enchanted geography of Sante Fe, New Mexico.
Second song hits following an initially thundering applause, and another fresh cut, “Losing All Sense,” sweeps in to highlight the insanity that is this group’s four part melodies, especially those of Droste and Chris Taylor (bass, vocals) as they are seamless and one tier away from transcendent perfection. Quickly, let us all be aware of at least one thing while we are attending shows with this caliber of proficiency: It is of no easy task or elementary talent to be able to pull organized harmonies together with such elegance and grace. When you’re on stage, it is like trying to find the right key in a subterranean bunker echoing a chorus of the same nasal voicemail being pumped through an ungodly amount of phone messages left in the early 90’s. Onto to the first fan favorite of the evening, “Yet Again,” when the third song comes into bring us back up to cruising altitude with the help of Christopher Bear (drums, backing vocals) who is by far one of the most enigmatic to watch, as he is on his own bumpy, adrenaline driven rollercoaster for the entire duration. Two more new tracks, “Cut Out,” and “Mourning Sound,” follow to close out the first set, with the latter culminating in some odd form of dance escalation that shakes off the rich, sleepy wine coma of Santa Monica on a Tuesday night, letting the uninhibited move to the chromatically half-stepped boogie that would normally prove impossible to shuffle to.
At this interval, most of the group exits the stage, leaving Rossen and Taylor to handle the interview portion of the session. Bentley, a self-proclaimed avid follower, seems almost nervous as he starts in with inquiries about the process of the new album, what took them so long, and their upcoming touring schedule. “I have not yet packed my bags,” Taylor quips when asked if he’s prepared for the grueling schlep of the road ahead, to which a few musicians in the crowd snicker audibly at, for they are the only ones who can understand what a daunting behemoth it can be to stare down the next two years behind the strength of a good record and the international praise to follow. Taylor seems to be the majority of the backbone of the group, handling his answers carefully when pried over his production of the records. “It’s about watching the band closely. Their moods, daily cycles, when everyone needs to eat and when they need to have a beer. It’s not about controlling them, it’s about excavating.” Both Rossen and Taylor present themselves to be charming in their own right. The guys you bring home as a date, at a dinner to meet your overbearing father for the first time, effortlessly quaint and a safe bet in regards to immediate attraction. Rossen sets in about deciding to leave Los Angeles as the rest of his colleagues decided to relocate to his hometown, and their sound begins to make sense in his reply. It’s a bit small town nowhere, and a fraction large metropolitan scare, blending into that trademark “haunting” quality that so many have pegged their uniqueness as. Bentley stumbles awkwardly over a few more questions as any true fanboy would, before stating, “Well, this was a disaster,” to some reinforcing laughter from the crowd, and from offstage, the band returns to begin the last showing of the double-header for the night.
And then something happened before Griz hopped into the seductive leg of “Sleeping Ute,” creeping out of a cracked door and reeling us all back into seduction. It was an epiphany of sorts, for me, and most likely for other people who were, at first listen to the band, slightly intimidated by the complexity of their arrangements. Coming back to an eerily silent crowd, Taylor jested, “We’re a very serious band…this is very serious music.” To which Droste replied, “Read a book music.” This moment revealed to me that I was plausibly part of a larger secret group who were afraid that we wouldn’t be able to understand the overall arch of their ultimate plot, like a Montgomery redneck trying Kid A on for size in an effort to connect with an art school niece at a family reunion. I had always written them off as romance music for intellectuals, when in reality, they’re just a group doing what they do, leaving us to appreciate how difficult it is to do so, and asking us to leave our predisposed judgements behind, because the music is much too emotive and meticulously crafted for anyone to stop and find anything wrong with it. It’s a surrender. Leave your bias at will call and enjoy yourself, you overly analytical listener of righteous grail.
“Two Weeks,” saunters in with the opening piano staccato as if it were the guest of honor arriving hours late to the party, and all who waited in heavy anticipation are allowed to breathe again. The crowd loses a figurative shit, as much as they can being packed like sardines in a tin can, and towering boyfriends become ass percussionists, spanking on the snare and destabilizing phone videos being taken by their girlfriends who are far too focused on capturing the moment to stop and scold the offbeat punishment. “Three Rings,” the first new track from the second set, and the last of the night, establishes itself as one of the most lush, layered performances thus far, and sets itself apart as a contender for best song off of Ruins. And finally, two songs back-to-back off of 2009’s “Veckatimest,” finish what we think will be the last of the performance. “Foreground,” and “While You Wait For The Others,” cap the ceremony accordingly, and give the fans a treat for patiently enjoying new material that they are not so familiar with. It was my first time ever hearing “Foreground,” a piano ballad sent from some otherworldly angelic karaoke bar where fanatics can lip the lyrics memorized from a tumultuous breakup, or from drawing inspiration for wedding vows, contrasting how a slow, perceptively sad song could be seen from a multitude of angles, and fit into the scope of both depression and jubilation. That particular moment will stay with me for months to come.
When you think the night is over, you’re wrong. Bentley passes them as they exit the stage like the perfect gentlemen they are, grabs the microphone, and asks the crowd if they would please summon back the powers at be with rebel yells that are not uncommon for groups of this stature who have built homes in the hearts of millions. A passionate gift was given to us in the form of an encore, unwrapped in realtime for the dedicated who had the ambition and wherewithal to make it to the end of 2012’s “Shields.” The choice was “Sun In Your Eyes,” the closing track from the aforementioned record that dips and returns like a confused orchestra on the brink of inadvertently writing a frenetic opus for kings to march. The devoted became noticeably separated from the sometimes listeners, for it takes a certain breed of inherently guttural followers to devour an entire album as a whole creation, as opposed to the many who graze singles at their own convenience, or background listen up to track five to be able to provide an articulately inconclusive review when questioned by peers regarding initial reactions to the work.
I’ll leave the evening to rest there, with some parting thoughts. Grizzly Bear is the equivalent to never studying for a test, but acing it every time. They make it seem dutifully effortless, when the reality is that they’re most likely working harder than most living entertainers to build an atmosphere; striving for the perfect pitch or a flawless outro, even if it may seem inconsequential to the layman. It matters to them, therefore, it matters to us. Like a Ginsberg epic lullaby’d over the undeniable rhythmic groove that they do better than the leagues of imitators who try and mostly fail to reach their delicate balance of gentle acoustic overtones, serving as beacons of porcelain introductions before the swell hits a jackpot an the beholder is cast into the intended scope of sonic bliss with meaningful twists. In comes a standout line from “Four Cypresses,”…“It’s chaos, but it works.”
KCRW’s Apogee Sessions with Grizzly Bear will broadcast and stream on Morning Becomes Eclectic October 12th.