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Grin and bear it: Grizzly Bear at Skidmore.

Photo: Joe Putrock

Pretty Hype Machine

By Josh Potter

Grizzly Bear

Skidmore College Sports and Recreation Center, Sept. 25


When bands rise to heroic next-big-thing status in the meteoric manner Grizzly Bear did this spring, they usually elicit one of two reactions from interested listeners. There’s the hype, according to which the band’s success is evidence of their talent, and there’s the backlash brought on by audience impressions falling short of hype-machine-milled expectations. A lauded studio album is usually enough to get members of either camp in the door, but what happens onstage tends to shape that band’s legacy.

Heading into Friday’s show, with personal favorites Gang Gang Dance (who tend, I’m finding out, to be ultra-polarizing themselves), I was pretty on-the-fence about Veckatimest, the recent Grizzly Bear recording responsible for their blitzkrieg of late-night TV, European festivals, American clubs, and Northeast liberal-arts colleges. With 2006’s Yellow House and the follow-up Friend EP, the band took their rightful place alongside other experimental Brooklyn acts with a hazy, distended style of folk-rock that deserved the “psych” and “chamber” qualifiers to a more or less equal degree. An opening slot for Radiohead authorized their promise, and Veckatimest was heralded as the masterpiece they were always meant to create. However, in a move toward accessibility, much of Yellow House’s raw, mumbled intimacy was sacrificed for calculated slickness and perfectionism that, when canned for wider distribution, struck me as self-conscious and a touch smarmy.

As soon as the band started their set, lit dramatically from below and situated before a tableau of hanging Mason-jar lanterns, one issue was immediately resolved. As to whether the band were capable of replicating the breadth and precision of their studio work, flute, clarinet, autoharp, and angelic four-part harmonies resounded in the affirmative. Indeed, Grizzly Bear sing so well that issues of songcraft and musicianship, at which they are equally adept, become immediately secondary. The charging “Southern Point” recalled CSNY and may well have trumped that same comparison that Fleet Foxes garnered last year. And with the help of some effects processing, tunes like “Lullaby” and “Cheerleader” evoked the atmosphere of Animal Collective or Sigur Rós at their dreamiest, all the while illustrated in fittingly placid or ominous light.

Unlike Animal Collective’s brand of experimentation, though, every song in Grizzly Bear’s set maintained a sense of Western classical forward motion, evoking folklore and narrative drama. In this sense, it’s no wonder that the band finally wrote a couple really sticky pop tunes. When the Ed Droste-penned single “Two Weeks” arrived mid-set, it was received like the hit it has become, with squeals and dancing. The same could be said for Daniel Rossen’s “While You Wait for the Others.” As a whole, Rossen’s material seemed to dominate the set, and to interesting effect. Oblique and somewhat dissonant, his songs (like “All We Ask” and “Fine for Now”) are creepers that take their time arriving at what might be called the hook and tend to inveigle the listener toward compliance. They’re the kind of songs that require patience but don’t always demand it, and so you find yourself coming to in the middle of a chorus that was bound to arrive, but might well be interchangeable with a riff in the next song.

This is not to say that the set, culminating with Yellow House’s “On a Neck, on a Spit,” was in any way weak or derivative. While the merit of Droste and Rossen’s writing was confirmed by their ability to execute the material on stage, bassist Chris Taylor and drummer Christopher Bear proved the band to be a consummate live act. If the set seemed to drag at times, it was on account of a dangerous standard that the hype surrounding Veckatimest has created. As much as they might try, Grizzly Bear are not an indie-pop band, and this is a good thing. The promise they first stirred up is still alive, and with a bigger stage now at their disposal, their best work has yet to be realized.

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