Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Knives Out: Grizzly Bear's "Shields" and Reinvention

In 2001, on an uninhabited stretch of road between Denton and Allen, I decided that Amnesiac was a bust. Radiohead had presented rewarding challenges with every album up to that point, but after struggling with it for quite awhile, I could not convince myself that the jarring differences between its burbling sound experiments and jagged songwriting would have a payoff like Kid A did. I shelved it and forgot about it

Several months later, however, during a rather innocuous set of standards, a UNT graduate jazz combo slipped in a genuinely moving rendition of Knives Out. It brought to my attention the song’s unsettling harmonic dissonance and challenged me to reconsider the original recording. Retrospectively, my opinion of Amnesiac is a bit higher (even though it’s still still one of Radiohead’s patchiest albums) but I view Knives Out as one of the finest songs in their oeuvre.

The combo that reframed the song for me earned my respect for focusing their intellectual and artistic energy on a song so obviously against the grain of jazz tradition. You don't often find that kind of idealistic innovation outside of the academic setting. Certainly, the audience for that sort of thing is quite limited and difficult to engage, especially back in the pre-YouTube era of the early 00s. These days, however, virtual music performances can sometimes serve as a creative venue for encounters like this.  One such performance played a role that led me to Grizzly Bear's most recent release.

Ever since I got Veckatimist last year, I have pondered Grizzly Bear’s deeper musical potentials. That album exhibited a level of musicianship that might indicate that there was more to them than meets the ear, but they are also indie darlings right now. Very often, indie sites have their own agendas that are not too dissimilar from the ones that guided record company promotional practices in the past. I have been very cautious about jumping on board the Grizzly Bear bandwagon simply because I want to make sure that I’m engaged by the band's musicality and not the hype that surrounds them. Therefore, when news of Shields started trickling through the feed, I was carefully interested. One night at Aikido Summer Camp, however, this video came up through my feed as I was getting ready to crash for the night.

Keep in mind, this guy isn’t even in the band, and he's not playing jazz.  Still, the amount of respect that this creative and skilled percussionist paid to Grizzly Bear in arranging an orchestrally-styled part to Sleeping Ute, a song that had not even been officially released yet, is a tribute to his belief in its broader intellectual potential.  For me, Shields went from being a curious interest to a must-have.

When it was finally released months later, it made an incredible first impression on me, so much so that I was afraid that it would burn brightly and proceed to collect dust. After being with it for awhile, however, I think that Grizzly Bear’s praise is mostly well-deserved. In addition to Sleeping Ute, I also connected almost immediately to Yet Again.

The production on this track, and on the album as a whole, captures an ambience that recalls Radiohead back in their early days when they were more like a band and less like a project (an identity shift that I think they were struggling with on Amnesiac). Listening to the laid-back, Keith Richards-esque strumming in this song, there is no question that Grizzly Bear’s music is generated by human hands. Additionally, their brilliant melodicism makes their work more inviting than that of Radiohead, sometimes reminiscent of Lindsey Buckingham’s quirky approach to pop songwriting. Lyrically and musically, however, they paint abstract, impressionistic pictures with the potential for multiple interpretations.

As an example, my first impression of Sun in Your Eyes, with its asymmetrical time signatures, rolling drumming, and desolate lyrics, was programmatic: a metaphor for a lonely, tumultuous sea voyage. I was a little disappointed to discover that there was scant lyric reference to support this imagery, but also impressed that this notion came entirely from the musical content.  My musical impression seemed quite clear, but the song's text pointed in a different direction.  Multimodal layers like this one can frequently be found in Grizzly Bear’s music, and the most interesting ones don’t always neatly coincide. Like Radiohead, they have ruptures between abstraction and clarity that leave lots of room for subjective interpretation, and therefore, creative reinvention.

1 comment:

  1. I like this post however I feel I should comment on your distinctions between Kid A and Amnesiac, even though Radiohead is not really the focus here. Both albums were recorded during the same sessions simultaneously, and as I understand it, not necessarily as distinct albums but as a new batch of material for a single release. The difference in the albums as they were released is clear, and I feel your point about Amnesiac being a step towards 'projectness', however I think both albums are essentially that step. Kid A has the coherence it does because those songs were selected from the larger pool as the best tracks to form a cohesive album. Upon its release it seems the band embraced their new sound and decided the remaining material should see light as well, thus Amnesiac is put together from material that inherently lacked a larger picture but still explored the new areas the band was heading to.

    This is not rebuttal, just my wanting to clarify that in my opinion distinguishing the modes of the band from Kid A to Amnesiac is not necessary as they come from the same place of inspiration and creativity. Also, looking at them as an album and a collection of B sides is not accurate either. I see them as coming from the same musical argument, one being the teeth, the other an afterthought of clarification, as if to say 'this is what we are intending to do, Kid A was no accident'.

    Full disclosure - I prefer Amnesiac, even bought it for my mother years ago. Kid A has some painful associations for me that steered me clear of it for years which I blame for this preference however I hold both albums above the rest of the bands catalog, and that catalog above almost every other bands career.