I guess cigarettes are a lot cheaper in Pennsylvania. That would explain the signs for SMOKERS CHOICE, SMOKIN' JOES, and CIGARETTE OUTLET / OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. Not much else around, except what a friend calls "cigarette stores that also sell gas."
Five of us are on our way back from a cabin upstate, in a Dodge van with cushy captains' chairs and a back bench that electronically folds into a squeaky leatherette bed. We're all musicians, and even before I insert Grizzly Bear 's new album, Shields, into the CD player, opinions start clashing.
"I had a hard time with it."
"Best thing they've ever done."
"The fact that there's no hooks on the album…"
"I think it's the hookiest thing they've ever done! I don't know, it works really well live."
The first song gets going in a wash of cymbals and unmistakable guitars (spooky chords played through what sounds like a hand-cranked Victrola), and my first thought is that Shields was definitely not meant to be experienced in a 1980s band-van. At least, not after an hour of classic rock radio. To add to the interference, I start thinking about New York magazine's sobering cover story, "Rock Stardom: Any Way to Make a Living? ," which weighs Grizzly Bear's modest personal lives against their indie-dominance — for a while after their 2009 album Veckatimest (and its ubiquitous single, "Two Weeks "), it was hard to find a New York band that didn't borrow their scratched-out guitar sounds and croony melodies. Lots of bands sound like them, but they don't sound like anyone.
Straining to hear them now, I wonder if there's a parallel between the minute care of Grizzly Bear's songs and the fragility of their success. Seen up close, both are inspiring; but it's scary how easy they are to drown out.
New Jersey now, where, according to a church sign, "GOD ALLOWS U-TURNS."
"Shout it out / Just make it up somehow." Most of the lyrics have flowed past unnoticed, but I look up when I hear that one, from "A Simple Answer." Two suggestions completely ignored by the band making them. Then a slow melody arises, and the irony, if that's what it is, comes full bloom in a refrain that, for a second, blocks out everything else: "No wrong, no right / Just do whatever you like."
We stop at a family restaurant near New Jersey's highest point, and leave wondering what possessed us to order a bloomin' onion. Hefting myself back into the front seat, I think of the Simpsons episode where Moe's Tavern becomes Uncle Moe's Family Feedbag (or was it Madman Moe's Pressure Cooker?).
Oblvious to our yodelling stomachs, Shields draws to a close. Even the pulsing crescendo of the last song is a whisper compared to Buke + Gase 's new EP, Function Falls, which I had burned on to the same CD-R. (The wobbly march of technology: it took an outdated stereo and audio format to play stuff I downloaded off eMusic.) Maybe it's for the best: the trees are blurring into billboards, and soon we'll be stacked up before the Holland Tunnel. Shields might not have been the best album for this experiment (I had better luck with Wilco and Feist), but I know I'll go back to it: the subtlety was there, whether we could hear it or not.
Meanwhile, we're inching toward the city. A fellow passenger makes the weirdly incongruous statement, "If anyone's hungry, I have to pee."
I need a cigarette.