Favorite band, part II: Life among the grizzlies

Do me a favor. If you own Grizzly Bear’s debut album, Horn of Plenty (2004), pull it out and listen to track 3, “Alligator.” (If you can access it in some other way, you can do that too, though I encourage you to buy it at some point. The only free way I can find quickly is to download it via eMusic as one of your free tracks.) Give it a listen. It shouldn’t take you long. The song’s only got 1:21 in it.

Now download the “choir version” of the same song, just released on the Friend EP (2007). You can find it on any number of music blogs, but click here to download it via stereogum, or click here and stream or download it from the band’s MySpace page. If you like what you hear and you don’t already own them, you can buy their albums here.

Or, if you haven’t already obediently started clicking, you can stream them both, one after another, here, though I’d ask you to listen to the old one first, the new one second.

Now, to get down to business.

Version one, the original album cut, is a slight track, just under a minute and a half. It’s not particularly one of the album’s standouts. It goes almost as easily as it comes, though it has a catchy melody — Christmas-carolish, almost, sounds a little like “Good King Wenceslas” — and a quirky refrain: “You are my alligator.” What exactly is that supposed to mean?

Version two, like most of their recent, between-albums EP, gives you some indication of how far the band has come in the last three years. The song is more fully realized, probably the effect of having performed it dozens of times over the last year, while the band has toured in support of Feist and TV on the Radio and headlined over Beach House, Dirty Projectors, and others who share a penchant for sunshine, volume, melodrama, and mysterious lyrics. I don’t say the new version of “Alligator” is more fully realized in order to slight the original. I enjoyed Horn of Plenty when it came out, all lo-fi and filled with kitchen sink sound-effects. I’m not sure how I heard of it originally; being that it was 2004 it probably had something to do with Animal Collective, whose Sung Tongs dominated my late summer that year, most of which I spent in Philly with my friends Farrell and Trixie. Though Grizzly Bear was originally lumped in with AC and other so-called “freak folk” acts, it turns out what Grizzly shares most with those fellows is an occasional Brian Wilson harmony. Since then the bands have moved in different directions, and oh how I prefer the direction Grizzly Bear has moved in.

“Alligator (Choir Version),” the new take, nearly five times as long as the original, simply recognizes the original version’s potential as a song. It fills more slowly, warps and rambles, and when it hits its 1:30 it threatens to erupt, then staggers forward. It wanders through its Brooklyn neighborhood, knocks on the neighbor’s old-fashioned back door, sings a few licks in perfect harmony, and asks it to come out and play stickball in the street. The neighbor kids’ roles will be played by Dirty Projectors and Beirut, and this is simply one of the best songs released this year.

roar, claws flail

I bought Grizzly Bear’s Friend EP and the 2005 2-CD reissue of Horn of Plenty a couple weeks ago, right after Dave, A White Bear, and I saw them perform at a Wordless Music Series show uptown at the Society for Ethical Culture. The EP consists of alternate takes of previously released songs (along with “Alligator,” there’s an epic, operatic even, new “electric” version of the song “Little Brother,” from their 2006 album Yellow House) and a series of covers of their songs: Cansei de Ser Sexy (CSS) does a hot synthpop version of “Knife” and Band of Horses does a spacey, neo-bluegrass cover of “Plans,” both originally on Yellow House. Not to mention the band’s own cover of the old controversial, Carole King-penned Crystals song, “He Hit Me.” The Friend EP is an EP that sounds more like a mix-tape from your coolest friend; the bonus-disc of remixes in the repackaged Horn of Plenty, which I had somehow never realized existed, gives you access not to a bunch of cheap-date dance remixes, but smart and loving takes on Horn of Plenty‘s tracks — sans “Alligator,” interestingly — from a bunch of groups Grizzly Bear identifies with, resembles, has toured with, or otherwise admires: Efterklang, Dntel, Castanets, and Final Fantasy, among others. In many cases, these should be called arrangements rather than remixes. Final Fantasy lays down his own strings.

The remixes, covers, and alternate versions on these discs succeed so well because they reveal both how perfectly structured these songs are as songs — how indebted this group is to the American Songbook, even — and they open up new corners of Grizzly Bear’s abilities as a band. They seem, on one hand, to push toward minimalism, creating a few layers of feedback and static to cover a series of repetitive lyrics (“What now, what now, what now, what now what?” from “Colorado,” for instance, or the line “My God, that’s not the way” from “Little Brother”), lines repeated over and over until they sound like messages from another planet via an old ham radio. On the other hand they crescendo, often enough, toward cacophonous climaxes over those repetitive chants (“Chin up, cheer up, chin up, cheer up!”). But who cares what the words are supposed to mean: we’ve made contact!

Ever since I announced last week that, though I’ve officially moved into my late 30s, I have a new favorite band, one that makes me feel like a teenager — and it’s Grizzly Bear — I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes one want to identify and affiliate with a favorite band. (Just to keep things in perspective, I had a conversation with a student who also attended the Ethical Culture show who agreed there aren’t many bands out there doing things as original as these kids.)

So here’s my list of three things a favorite band would need in order to qualify:

1. The band needs to have good characters; performances need to feel like the best short fiction or perhaps a play. My brother and I used to play a game at shows — Who’s Your Favorite Character? You know you’re dealing with a good band when it’s hard to make that choice. The frontman’s clearly the alpha male here: Ed Droste, who flawlessly plays the role of a cabaret vamp, makes the phrase “openly gay” seem embarrassingly old-fashioned, but knows how to play music media and queer press outlets just right on that score. He founded Grizzly Bear as a one-man bedroom band, recording versions of all the songs on Horn of Plenty before he recruited drummer Christopher Bear (no relation to the band’s name, though you know they love having to say that) to help him finish off the tracks.

Between then and Yellow House, they brought in other members to round out the band: Daniel Rossen now shares songwriting and lead guitar credits, and seems to be responsible for the parts of the band’s sound — the Beach Boys harmonies, for instance — that have become most distinctive. (He also plays in a duet known as Department of Eagles.) He’s considerably shorter than Droste and seems to have to elbow his way to the mic to sing the songs on which he has lead vocals — watching them live you realize how different the two songwriters’ styles are — all the better to make Rossen a favorite character contender. But then there’s Chris Taylor, who looks a little like the elf who wants to be a dentist on the old Rudolph claymation Christmas specials. He’s often credited as “reeds and bass,” but to see him live is to marvel at his abilities to lay down a stealth bass line (where’s that coming from?) by squatting close to the stage while playing his clarinet and some foot pedals, or to watch him shake some jingle bells into a recorder, loop them, do the same thing with five other miscellaneous percussion sounds, and then switch to his bass guitar. Fellow moves around all kinds of ADD, playing back and forth on a half dozen different lines while the lead singers — especially Droste — saunter and slouch against the microphone. Watching Taylor you’re reminded of that black and white footage of John Cage playing a bunch of home appliances on an old TV show, turning on blenders and knocking over alarm clocks. One of the most appealing features of Grizzly Bear is that they move in perfect concert with one another while they layer their loops and set up a structure for their songs, perfect complements to one another’s voices and musical parts, competent on their instruments, defying the DIY indie ethos by showing that they clearly know what the hell they’re doing. Have you seen them live? Who would be your favorite character?

2. Seeing the band live should change your perception of their music; in my case it made me realize they were becoming my favorite band. Even though they’ve toured with acts I really enjoy, most of which I’ve seen live multiple times — Final Fantasy, Feist, TV on the Radio — I somehow had managed not to see them until a month ago. I had experienced their music as all ether, no single atmospheric layer really standing out against the others. I described them here, last year, as winter sunshine that made you think it was warmer outside than it really was. But seeing them recently warmed me up a little more than that. First of all, these were guys who busted their asses to put on a good show. Like the acts they’ve traveled with, they play a set that depends on all sorts of self-managed stage- and soundcraft, front and center. Taylor’s knob-twiddling matches Feist’s and Final Fantasy’s foot-peddling loops; the band’s layers of noise eventually add up to something like TV on the Radio’s, though hazier, shimmerier. Seeing them, I was reminded of the first time I saw Mercury Rev and realized that rather than descending directly from Neil Young, which is how I’d always imagined them (given the vocals, probably) they were descended from Bryan Ferry. Something similar happened when I watched Droste perform for the first time: he, too, traces to Bryan Ferry (even if the rest of the band descends more fully from Giles, Giles, and Fripp), to the Bryan Ferry of all those 70s covers albums — the “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” Bryan Ferry — and all this time I had thought it was Brian Wilson. When Droste sings “He Hit Me” (ba-bum, “and it felt like a kiss,” ba-bum), it comes off as queer gothic.

3. You’ll find yourself moved to seek out as much information as possible about your group. You’ll find that you know all the band members’ names — the first time that’s happened in years. Back in the day I’d have to resort to my Rolling Stone subscription or use the Reader’s Guide to access interviews and features via interlibrary loan. (I know, some of you still think that’s sexy. Admit it.) Now you know you have a new favorite band when you find yourself having just spent two hours culling their YouTube hits, finding the clips you’d like to recommend to your friends. Like this one, of the band singing “Knife” a capella while walking down a Paris street:

Or this one, which highlights the choir-geekiness of the band by showing how readily the band’s songs lend themselves to geeky high school a capella choirs:

Can you top that with any other recent band? I’ll throw down with my favorites any day of the week.

46 responses to “Favorite band, part II: Life among the grizzlies”

  1. Rachel says:

    Bryan, thanks for getting me excited about Grizzly Bear. I downloaded Yellow House a long while back, but have never really given it a full listen until now. To me, it sounds a lot like the first TV on the Radio releases, but my iTunes lists it as “Folk.” Cool stuff.

  2. Try the Friend EP too — you, in particular, would like the CSS cover of “Knife.”

  3. Beth W says:

    “You are my alligator”

    You look scary like a crocodile but are much less likely to eat me.

  4. Ruben Mancillas says:

    since i can’t (won’t?) do the linking/downloading/streaming necessary to partake in the bear’s many apparent pleasures let me instead respond to some of bryan’s fascinating criteria for favorite band status. i love the idea of creating a narrative, complete with characters no less, and that the experience of live performance figures so large in factoring a band’s potential worth. has it always been like this for you? even as an actual shrine building teenager? do band characters evolve? do they do this through primarily through the recordings, live performances, or interviews and the like? want to give us an arc for jt era U2 until now?

    always nice to get a ferry shoutout, the beach boys are mentioned anytime someone uses some nice harmonies or a falsetto but a solo ferry reference is high praise indeed.

    shake your head girl with your ponytail, takes me right back when we were young

  5. i was thinking about this after i’d posted — the beach boys thing — and i agree with you. would it have helped to be more precise? because later this morning i thought that if they have some beach boys hiding in them, it’s probably early 70s beach boys, the “feel flows” beach boys, a little dopey.

    hey ruben. get a babysitter or two and go watch the dylan movie.

    arc from 1988 to now? i haven’t had that many favorite bands. from 94 or 95 on, under farrell’s influence at first, it was Pavement. Then, maybe, Lambchop. That’s about it. For a while it could have been Broken Social Scene, but I felt like I was too old to have a favorite band, and their last album didn’t really hold my attention that long. I’ve had favorite songwriters (Smog, Bonnie Prince Billy, Owen Pallett) and favorite albums and such but not really favorite bands. I need some really good characters in the band — a combination of stage presence and media presence — and just plain smartness all around: smart lyrics, smart engagement with media, smart instrumentation. That’s where I think these guys are succeeding with me.

  6. LT says:

    what about this great band?

  7. what a sweet little clip, lisa. is john in there? is this his composition? i kept thinking the drummer was me in my shaggier days.

    man, i love it when people use woodwinds in their songs.

  8. LT says:

    all hail the bass clarinet!

    john is all the way on the left singing and playing keys/ melodica. it’s his song about how he feels really old in his head.

  9. Tim Wager says:

    I love the a cappella versions of “Knife”! The band’s video of it is truly bizarre and strangely compelling.

    I like the criteria you set up here, Bryan, especially having to know all the band members’ names and seeing them as characters competing for one’s attentions/affections. Given these standards, Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, and Superchunk have been in competition for my favorite-band status for years.

  10. Ruben Mancillas says:

    thanks for the rec on the haynes movie, just got the soundtrack from amazon the other day and some of the tracks are great.

    as for the childcare, i’m guessing we would only need one (very good) sitter but haven’t yet entrusted the challenge to anyone but grandparents yet.

    i was really thinking of the story arc for U2 themselves-have they, collectively or in terms of characters within the band dynamic, appreciably changed for you over the years?

    and who is your favorite “dumb” band? I’ll admit to listening to live zep as i write this…

  11. Tim Wager says:

    “and who is your favorite “dumb” band? I’ll admit to listening to live zep as i write this…”

    Dumb? Dude! Led Zep is not at all dumb. We saw The Song Remains the Same last week. Zep rules! Favorite “dumb” bands would have to be in the category of Soundgarden or something — you know, really dumb.

  12. autumn says:

    Back in Fall of 2005, an on-line pal named Charles (also of a great band called Charles Atlas) recommended Grizzly Bear. I had never heard of them, but trusted Charles taste and quickly had music in hand. I loved them. They reminded me of the bands I already loved, including groups of musician friends who cleverly bend the ‘band’ definition and create fresh forms. I played Horn of Plenty out. I shared with friends and purchased new releases. I told the story of the stolen equipment from the 2006 tour, as if it happened to friends. Are they my favourite? I crush out too many to play musical favourites, but they are on the short list. Bryan, I really enjoyed your post here. It made me look at tour schedules.

    and one more thing…on your comment to Ruben to go see I’m Not There, I follow that and urge everyone to go see that film. I just saw it yesterday, so I’m still digesting it all and scribbling notes in my moleskin, but it’s safe to say that Bob Dylan is one of my first crushes and he set the stage for all subsequent flirtations. In this film, Todd Haynes has crafted and excellent, unique work that weaves together in a form of meditation on personality, perception, imagination, creativity and protest. It’s absolutely stunning and has so many great moments, but Kate Blanchett brings it to the quick in her role as BD circa No Direction Home. Amazing.

  13. LT says:

    autumn, by the way, is not british, but likes to spell as if she is.

  14. autumn says:

    I’m bringing U back! :)

    BTW…just realized I miss referenced. It’s not No Direction…it’s Don’t Look Back era.

  15. hey autumn — i remember you playing GB at the first record club LA …

    tim … if you liked the paris street clip, check this one out.

  16. Jeremy says:

    i was going to make a note of that, too–Autumn played GB at our first LA record club, while my friend Charla played GB at the last meeting of the LA-spinoff record club…

    I hope to see “Grizzly Bear” written on your shoes when I see you in about a month, BW.

  17. LT says:

    J, I truly LOVE that you’ve identified the other LA record club as “spinoff.”

    Does that make autumn and me (et al) O.G.s, for reals?

  18. Dave says:

    Bryan, I haven’t heard Horn of Plenty, but love Yellow House and Friend and of course loved loved loved that live show. Such beautiful, inventive sounds. I think my favorite character is Daniel Rossen, but basically I’d just loiter backstage and hope to pick up any of them.

    As for favorite bands, I’ve only ever had one. Started when I was 24.

    And Autumn, I really like I’m Not There — definitely had so many great moments. But thinking back on it I’m put off by how pedantic it was, especially the way Haynes has Blanchett basically lecturing the audience a few times on The Right Take on Dylan. And thinking of the other Haynes films I’ve seen — particularly Safe and Far From Heaven — he has kind of a problem with being heavy-handed with his thematic materials. Trust the audience, dude. Although not trusting the audience is probably why he’s so popular.

  19. Bryan says:

    hmm. i’ll have to think about your take on haynes, though i’m sure i’ll write about it here or somewhere else sooner than later.

    as for GB, i think only one of them swings your way (or so i’ve read) and he apparently has a boyfriend. but you never know how such arrangements play out in real life. so hang back stage and hope for the best, i say.

  20. Bryan says:

    dave — remind me which parts you’re objecting to. i don’t remember any blanchette lectures (lecturettes?). but i may have overlooked them in my rosy assessment, because after all i’m kind of gaga over haynes and dylan alike.

  21. Dave says:

    Some of the dialogue in the car with the BBC guy; some stuff towards the end. It’s a (mostly correct) reading of Dylan that downplays his links to the folk revival, in fact objects to the motivation behind the folk revival, and ties him to living traditions (Greil Marcus’s “old weird America”) rather than simulacra of living traditions. The argument is framed by the black kid an especially the Richard Gere part, but it’s made pretty damn explicit by Blanchett. Which I found annoying, even though I largely agree with that reading.

    Also, and a separate point of objection: according to Don’t Look Back and the footage in that Scorsese film, the young Dylan, especially ’65 and ’66, was much more of a self-involved prick that Blanchett and Haynes would have you believe.

  22. see, i thought blanchett’s performance was so remarkable in part because hers was the least sympathetic dylan. i thought they did a good job making him a prick, even if her grin here or there could make you forget what a prick she was playing.

    no doubt, the movie prefers post-folk dylan. in fact, my sense is that the movie prefers 70s dylan over 60s dylan period. but that’s an argument i’ll make later. it has a lot to do with the soundtrack album.

    i also had the impression that most of what blanchett’s character utters is recorded here or there verbatim, especially the interviews. but i may be fantasizing. of course, haynes culls the interviews. but still, for the most part we’re getting a version of the dude as he presented himself (or we’re getting versions of the dude as he presented himself, as filtered through haynes).

    there’s a great dylan cartoon in this week’s new yorker but it’s not online, alas.

  23. okay, let me just make this disclaimer now. if you don’t want any more spoilers, go see the damn movie before monday.

  24. Dave says:

    Dude, Cate Blanchett isn’t even playing Dylan, she’s playing Jude Quinn. Why should we assume her dialogue is verbatim from a guy she’s not even playing? (I’m serious about this.)

    Although maybe I’m making too much of the flaws. It was a pretty cool movie overall. Beautiful in many ways, and very smart.

    I should also note for the record that the implied subject of the second sentence of the second paragraph of 18 is something like “my love for this band” rather than “this band.” My superego clearly will not let me enjoy anything like Cynthia’s ludic syntactic freedom.

    Aaaaand, good night, all. I’m probably not around much the next few days — I’ll be out doing some gonzo journalism for this here website.

  25. ah, then why should you assume that jude quinn is preaching something about bob dylan?

  26. Dave says:

    Because it’s the Todd Haynes Dylan movie, silly. It even has a few Dylan songs in it.

  27. Bryan says:

    you are too much.

    but you do have me thinking about the process by which they wrote the screenplay. i recognized famous lines here and there from interviews, passages from _chronicles_ and bios i’ve read over the years. so a lot of what they stitch together come from those kind of sources. i’m pretty sure a lot of the preachy stuff — the stuff you singled out — fits in with his behavior and comments to the press from that tour. i need to go back and watch _don’t look back_ to see how else haynes is interacting with its portrait. have fun in florida.

  28. Tim Wager says:

    “have fun in florida” = the new “dave, i’m home”?

  29. Don Pardo says:

    i became casually acquainted with ed droste when i first moved to the city. guy is a huge social climber and a twat. lets all celebrate him for using his trust fund money to buy some recording equipment and put a half-assed shit album together so he would have something to sell himself with on friendster

  30. Bryan says:

    and, i suppose, to generate enough resentment or envy in some people that they can’t find anything better to do than troll the web looking for places to spew cant?

  31. Don Pardo says:

    unfortunately the place found me. but if i was looking, i’m sure i wouldnt have to look far. if hating ultra-priveledged posers neccessarily means youre resentful and envious then i guess im guilty. dont think so though

  32. Don Pardo says:

    1850 – Nat Turner revolt; with glorious futility Nat T. echoes Chuck Dukowski’d Black Flag proclamation, “We’re fighting a war, a war we can’t win. They hate us, we hate them, we can’t win – no way.”

  33. Dave says:

    Have you brought pastries, Don?

  34. Don Pardo says:

    no, but i brought a knuckle sandwich for that cunt ed

  35. Dave says:

    You see, in Soviet Russia, troll feeds you.

  36. Bryan says:

    34: you go girl! don’t let dave keep the revolution down.

  37. Bryan says:

    32: the Nat Turner revolt happened in 1831. If you’re going to go around connecting it, for whatever mysterious reason, to band leaders you don’t like, at least get the date right, man!

  38. Don Pardo says:

    its too late, i’ve been exposed as a stalinist operative. my long cherished dream of soviet world conquest is ruined!!

  39. Don Pardo says:

    i can still put droste to the sword though

  40. Don Pardo says:

    actually bryan i dont see what relevance the date has, at all

  41. Tim Wager says:

    Don, I’m a little confused. This post is about having a favorite band — loving the music, the videos, the characters the band members take on, etc. It’s not a post about what a great guy Ed Droste is or how the author wants to be his best friend, so the relevance of your first comment is beyond me.

    Also, everyone who has ever “gotten anywhere” in any entertainment industry (and probably especially music) has somewhere along the way struck someone or other as not a very nice person, perhaps even a “twat” or a “cunt” (what are you, btw, *English*?). Consider yourself one of those people when it comes to Mr. Droste. Frankly, you should just let it go, whatever it was that he did or represents that irks you. You’ll sleep a lot better at night and not have websites throwing themselves at you and forcing you to comment on them. It’s just not worth it.

    P.S. I think Bryan was just pointing out that you undermined whatever authority and credibility you were trying to gather to yourself with the Nat Turner reference by getting the date wrong by almost 20 years.

  42. Don Pardo says:

    This comment is about me not liking a cuntish man by the name of Ed Droste. Its not so much that he did anything to me but the fact that he exists, and that he has to remind us of it with his crap music. I will sleep better when he and his ilk are put to the sword.

    “’We don’t go to their parties, yeah because we hate them.”

  43. Bryan says:

    and i keep hoping for baked goods.

  44. Don Pardo says:

    as for Nat T.– i know our nation’s history, so don’t presume to tell Me what year we won our independence from britain! a great man, he was.

  45. Bryan says:

    waffles even?

  46. friend of Ed says:

    wow, I’m friends with Ed and can’t imagine what the hell he did to mr. pardo to upset him. We’ve been friends for over 8 years and I’ve never seen him throw someone to the curb or do anything to be a cuntish twat. Here’s where I’m guessing mr. pardo is somewhere deep down jealous of mr. droste for if he truly hated him, he’d not waste his time thinking about it but rather just pretend he doesn’t exist.

    Good luck mr. pardo! Hope you find a life.