The Mystery of Moments
Christopher Dobstaff, Editorial Director
(Editor's Note: With Grizzly Bear's new B-Sides album being released on Tuesday, ACRN's Editorial Director decided to reflect on his experience in discovering the Brooklyn indie rock group.)
Indie rock is a pretty difficult genre to get behind.
That’s because, for the most part, you’re either in or you’re out. You either get it or you don’t. Sure, you can formulate your own opinion, but it had better align pretty closely with what others are saying about a certain band or album, lest you fall behind on the times and quickly become a fatuous music fan with obsolescent taste.
That’s not a good position to be in.
And yet, as a high school student in northeast Ohio in 2009, I found myself smack dab in the middle of such a pickle. That year, Brooklyn indie band Grizzly Bear released its third album Veckatimest to incredible critical acclaim. Even before its release date, there were sacrosanct proclamations for the album, labeling it not only as one of the best of the year, but the decade. Reading such reviews and being a studious follower of modern music, I immediately purchased the CD (I was in the minority and still did not own an iPod) and popped it into my stereo at home, affixing the headphones carefully to my ears.
The first track, “Southern Point,” breezed through the headset as singer Ed Droste sang over a multitude of light acoustic guitars. The song builds and builds, and I found myself surrounded by haunting harmonies and unfettered percussion. The second track, also the album’s single, continued on with good vibes. “Two Weeks” hinges on simple piano chords and swirling, complicated harmonies from the band members. After two tracks, I knew that Veckatimest was everything the critics said it would be and more.
But then, the dreaded drop came. “All We Ask” sounded like a jejune lullaby, and Ed Droste’s indefectibly dreamy voice began to wear on me quickly as the song continued. It was just so… boring. By the end of the fourth track I found myself asleep at three in the afternoon, and woke up embarrassed that I could have drifted off during what was sure to become one of the most classic albums of my adolescence. I was determined to have Veckatimest define my high school years, because, well, I had pretty much read that it should.
But it didn’t. The album was quickly placed on my shelf, staying there as I endured the breakup of The White Stripes and waited in vain for the next great Strokes album, for those were the types of bands that I loved: loud guitar rock with the amps cranked and a singer who would most likely perform openly intoxicated while onstage. Grizzly Bear, I argued with myself, was simply a group of preppy New York kids that wore sweaters and created grandiose music that had no real substantial value.
That opinion was a tough one to carry around during my early college years, as I fell into a group of friends that adored the band. So much so, that I initially found myself pretending to enjoy Veckatimest simply so I could join the conversation. Eventually it surfaced that I somehow didn’t enjoy the Grizzly Bear’s 2009 classic, which in the end didn’t matter much to my friends, but it still mattered to me. Why couldn’t this album click in my brain? What was stopping the songs from puncturing that barrier that emotionally connects a person to a tune? I would sometimes listen to “Two Weeks” on my walk to class, but I never ventured into the latter half of the record for fear of feeling my eyes begin to droop as I strolled down the road.
Then, in the fall of 2012, Grizzly Bear released its fourth album Shields. The friends began to form a sort of pre-release coalition that yearned impatiently for the day that they would finally be able to listen to a new batch of songs. Meanwhile, I continued on listening to the music I wanted to. Veckatimest had convinced me that Grizzly Bear would never be a part of my musical vernacular. So be it. I didn’t have to like what all of my friends liked (even though I honestly wished I did).
But when a friend loaned me a copy of Shields, what I found was an album that grabbed me immediately and didn’t let go. The winsome tone of the opener “Sleeping Ute” combined with the majestic yet intensely electric “Yet Again” helped shape a record that completely shifted my initial reaction to the group. I had a brief moment of shame for formerly criticizing the band members’ sweaters as I quickly began spinning Shields on repeat.
The songs followed me everywhere. I couldn’t escape the magic of the harmonies or the piano that could jump from calming to chaotic passion within the same song. And yet I still found myself avoiding the dust-covered copy of Veckatimest, out of some doltish fear of the idea that if I still disliked that album, it could somehow hinder my experience of Shields. There’s a special kind of bond that every person has with his or her own mind that, even when you are completely aware that your reasoning defies logic, the mind somehow makes it seem valid.
Then Grizzly Bear announced its 2013 North American tour. How could a newfound fan possibly pass up the opportunity to see the group in an Easter weekend show at the resplendent Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh? So I assembled a crew of those hip friends who had cared passionately about the band before I had and made the trek to the great state of Pennsylvania.
Once Grizzly Bear took the stage, worlds were changed. In the small theater, those Brooklynites infused the room with a multitude of sounds that echoed from countless instruments. Bassist Chris Taylor kept busy on the left side of the stage, switching from bass to flute to clarinet, while occasionally adding backing vocals to lead singers Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen. And while the band played much of its new album, it also performed six songs fromVeckatimest. On “While You Wait For The Others,” Droste’s voice soared into the upper balconies as he supported the strong vocal base that Rossen was building.
But it wasn’t until Grizzly Bear closed with an acoustic version of “All We Ask,” the song that had helped lull me into an afternoon slumber four years ago, that I fully realized the intransigence of my ways. The band stripped a song that I initially found dull to its roots. There was just one guitar and four voices, working together and weaving a blanket of harmony that filtered into the crowd with a lucid beauty unlike anything I had heard before. The emotion-fueled performance ended with Droste, Taylor, Rossen and drummer Christopher Bear singing, “I can’t / Get out / Of what I’m into / With you.”
And neither could I. As soon as we sat down in the car, I demanded to hear songs from Veckatimest for what had to be the first time since I listened to the album in 2009. The songs now had new life; life that was given by the ephemeral performance that I had just witnessed. But now the songs could last forever in a new way, and with a resurgent enthusiasm I began listening to Grizzly Bear’s third album everywhere that I went.
However, something still troubled me. Did the fact that I had disassociated myself with the album for so long say something about myself? Was I not as tuned in to the music as I should have been? Were my ears not fully developed? And did my enjoyment only extend from the live concert?
What I’ve come to terms with is that, in most cases, music is an art made for moments. Each part of our lives can be traced back to a particular piece of music that helped us get through a tough time or an instance of pure joy. Sure, those who are critical of art should be able to sort the good from the bad, but it’s not always the case that we’re correct the first time around. And that’s because the record’s moment hasn’t come for us yet. If I had enjoyed Veckatimest prior to the show in Pittsburgh, my overall experience would have vastly differed from the one I had, but in that cozy music hall, the music called out and begged for a second chance, which my ears, now ready for the moment, answered in kind.