When I hear the dynamic single Yet Again by Grizzly Bear, I cannot help but think of Coldplay. And by Coldplay I mean the Coldplay which Coldplay wishes to be.
Yet Again strikes a dynamic balance, between gracefully melodic rock and more scholarly poses, with a dash of sonic dazzle. It is the highlight of the Brooklyn quartet’s adventurous new album Shields, as it was an up moment during the band’s swell-guy-ishness and serious eloquence at Massey Hall on Wednesday.
When Chris Martin and Coldplay set about to record 2007’s Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends with Brian Eno, the goal was reinvention – a new bolder soundtrack to the melancholic musings of Martin; a step toward the hi-def digital horizon. I’m not sure Coldplay and Eno pulled it off. But full marks for trying to escape the constraints of expectations brought about by past patterns of success.
(That would be highly lucrative, Gwyneth-wooing, sweeping-chorus success.)
Before the band’s three Canadian concerts (including Sunday’s appearance at Olympia de Montréal), Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen spoke of preconceptions and escapes. “On our last two records, there were stylistic trademarks that we didn’t want to turn into crutches,” said the guitarist, singer and co-frontman, calling from the road. “For Shields we consciously sought out the wrong choices, just to see where that would lead us.”
Where it led them was evident at Massey, where a packed house (too often claid in seasonally inappropriate headwear) watched a fairly masterful performance, one which drew on previous records (Yellow House and 2010’s breakout Veckatimest) and the confident new one. The lighting scheme was a stunner – 18 floating lanterns, rising and lowering sometimes, casting an elegant type of whimsy.
Sleeping Ute bashed, shuddered and stormed over pretty vocals from Ed Droste, who sang about calmness and clearness, darkness and cloaked visions, and dreams of wandering free. A heavy percussive gallop ended with a more pastoral outro. Ute was a beaute.
When Rossen spoke about stylistic trademarks, he meant excessive harmonies and layered voices. While recording Shields, if something sounded too Grizzly Bearish, the band threw it out and started it again. “There were no rules, no clear direction,” he explained. “The freedom was bewildering at times.”
The result is a postdoctorate My Morning Jacket (those Kentucky reverb-rockers), with sophisticated inspirations drawn from, perhaps, Sigur Ros’s Takk, Radiohead’s Kid A or Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden. Throw in some Kate Bush, yes? And, on something like the piano-pounding What’s Wrong, even the pop sensibilities of Neil Finn.
The sold-out audience dug it all, especially the indie-queen pop-in from Leslie Feist, who added background vocals on the Veckatimest hit Two Weeks. And speaking of Polaris Music Prize winners, Owen Pallett brought his violin on stage early in the show.
According to Rossen, the songs of Shields took long to pull together – they existed in unfinished states, their endings yet to be imagined. “It often wasn’t clear when these songs were done,” he said. “There were points when I didn’t know if we ever were going to finish.”
Grizzly Bear’s victory, then, was its abandon. Anything, on the album and on stage, can happen at any moment – call it the art of uncertainty.
Grizzly Bear plays Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom Oct. 6 and 7.