Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Grizzly Bear's Shields pushes their sonic territory across new borders

Four albums into their career, Grizzly Bear are no longer developing into one of the best bands of our generation. They've already arrived. The Brooklyn indie folk rockers utilized eclectic instrumentation and heart touching harmonies to set forth a body of work that became the envy of many bands. But they apparently aren't content, as Shields focuses on pushing their boundaries still further.

Their sophomore release Yellow House established the band's core sound; this is where they became known for their dreamy, pastoral chamber pop. However, it was their third album, Veckatimest, that would serve as a key turning point for the band. It took their pre-existing ideas and harnessed them into a set of 12 concise and cohesive songs.

It was the type of album that allowed its songs to simmer and rise, slowly going through several progressions until it reached an apex. Once those songs reached their sweet spot they lingered there, allowing you to drink in the full splendor and majesty of their most creative moments. Veckatimest was by no means a restrained album, but if there was one weakness it was perhaps that they tended to rely on that formula a little much. Shields is even more adventurous than its predecessor by not only varying their formula, but by also pushing their songwriting and musicianship to yet another level.

The first four tracks offer about as good of an opening salvo as you're ever like to hope for. Lead single "Sleeping Ute" tries to do what "Southern Point" did on Veckatimest -- quickly blow you away with Daniel Rossen's dizzying instrumentation and mellow croon. And again they succeed without a shadow of a doubt. Rossen's lead guitar is heavily nuanced and stylized, even dipping into a little bit of heavy rock. And there's some minor tinges of psychedelia if that isn't enough for you.

"Speak in Rounds" focuses much more on vocals while never letting up from the opening bombast of "Sleeping Ute." The instrumentation is more subdued, but the melodies make it feel organic, living, breathing, moving, and exciting. It even gets a little bit brassy near the end.

Following that is something Grizzly Bear have never done before: a hazy, fully ambient little keyboard track which briefly washes over you with minor xylophone flourishes. Their early work has sometimes floated in ambiance, but it's never been as fully realized as it is on "Adelma." It serves as a breather after that dynamic one-two opening punch.

Had enough rest? Good, because now it's time the album's second pre-release track, "Yet Again." Vocal harmonies have always been one of Grizzly Bear's cornerstones, and this track is the first great representation of that on Shields. It sees Droste getting a bit wistful and moody; he appears to not quite be content with his place in the world but is trying to come to terms with it. It's supplemented with haunting harmonies and psychedelia, and near the end we get something we don't hear much from Grizzly Bear -- propulsive drumming from Christopher Bear that helps drive Droste's message home.

From here, the band begins to relax a bit and settle into a groove. The instrumentation tends to take a backseat to allow the singers' voice to shine. The next best track is "Gun Shy" which is Shields's true showcase piece in terms of harmony and vocal arrangement. Although they've always been strong in this department, the competing interplay between Droste and Chris Taylor on the main hook is truly the stuff of legends.

Elsewhere, the eerie strings and minimalist nature of "The Hunt" sees Grizzly Bear making an effort to update their sound from the Yellow House/Horn of Plenty era. Meanwhile, "Half Gate" serves as another reminder of how powerful drumming is shifting the band's sound.

Lyrically, they have a tendency to focus on loneliness and isolation. A cursory glance through their lyric booklet might lead an inattentive reader to conclude that many of their themes are about relationships. A better way to put it is that they concern relationships, but aren't about them specifically.

Rather, they tend to focus on a particular nuance in the breakdown of relations between two people. "What's Wrong," for example, speaks of a relationship that falls apart because one person decides to sequester and close themselves off. "The Hunt," meanwhile, talks about being addicted to the feelings of trying to piece together a crumbling relationship.

Shields wraps up with Grizzly Bear's opus, "Sun in Your Eyes." It starts off sleepily before lifting you up with a big, powerful chorus that is full of brass and life. It builds up like a post rock track, slowly building to a fever pitch until it unleashes its major crescendo highlighted by powerful cymbal clashes, weighty keys, dramatic harmonies, and the impassioned voice of Daniel Rossen. "I'm never coming back," he cautions, as he fades out for the last time.

Shields is a stunning achievement that transcends the boundaries of folk or any other genre tag you care to throw out. But one caveat is that the second half of the album is certainly more subdued and takes greater effort to get into. Because of the ambition of the first four song, it feels like the rest of the album is playing catchup. It has a hard time living up to the standard established there. For this reason, Veckatimest feels a nudge more consistent than Shields, although Shields reaches greater heights. Nonetheless, Grizzly Bear is proving themselves to be much more than we ever thought they could be - and that's truly saying something.

Score: 96/100

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