Sunday, 28 October 2012

Grizzly Bear: Neither Fish Nor Fowl

Because of the company I keep, I typically find myself going to see Grizzly Bear live whenever they're in London. So it was last week, when the band was in town promoting its latest album, Shields. Ahead of the concert I duly bought the album and listened to it, so that on the big day I was ready to hear them play the material live. I'd formed some impressions and opinions, and armed with these I trooped into the Brixton Academy to see if the band would live up to expectations. But to be charitable, I ended the evening kind of pissed off.

I'd seen the band twice before, and found them generally inoffensive, even enjoyable in parts. That said, they aren't one of those bands that works the crowd, gets people dancing and singing along, and all that jazz. It's just, on this occasion, I really couldn't build up even the connection I've had when listening to them on drives through places like Big Sur.

Listening on, I kept thinking about all the things I've heard or read about them - one music site suggests that their material is not so much written as "composed" - implying that they've got less in common with other rock bands and more with the likes of Mozart, Steve Reich or whoever.

For me, Grizzly Bear symbolizes this tendency that people have of separating passion from virtuosity. We're at a place, culturally, where what everyone seems to value in music is how passionately an artist plays, regardless of how good they are. In fact, it seems that for most music fans, at least in London, actually knowing how to play an instrument is a sign that you've left behind the ideals of punk or whatever. Naturally, there are fans who go in the other direction, preferring the chin-stroking kind of music to anything loud or brash or danceable.

Both groups are more similar than they'd like to admit, especially because they're both constantly in search of that one obscure band that one-ups whatever all their friends are listening. Finnish noise-rock? Check. A punk band composed entirely of twelve-year-olds who've never picked up an instrument before? Check.

So where does Grizzly Bear fit into this? I'd put them into the latter camp, if for no other reason than that don't seem to be interested in building any sort of rapport with the audience. Listening to them last week, I felt like they'd have been just as happy playing in an empty auditorium - their music doesn't invite any sort of participation. And, paradoxically, the audience seemed happy to leave them to it - apart from one cracked-out girl who was dancing up a storm in front of me, the most movement I saw in the crowd was a bit of head-bobbing here and there.

I guess what I'm getting at here is, can't we have good musicians who also make you want to sing along? The guys in Grizzly Bear are meant to have been music students once - I don't doubt that they're better musicians than I ever will be, but the comment above about their music being "composed" shows that the writer really doesn't know anything about contemporary (ie modern classical) music.

There's a place for both cerebral music and ballsy music. But by not engaging the listener, Grizzly Bear isn't either.