In Brief: The “live band” energy of several tracks meshes well with Grizzly Bear’s keen attention to texture and detail. That’s enough to make up for a slight lack of content.
I can sometimes be unnecessarily hard on a record when I feel that it suffers from a lack of content. I’ve tried to expand my horizons on this issue as I’ve started to dig deeper into the world of indie rock over the years and discovered a handful of artist who don’t particularly care for popular ideas of what fits the typical album format. But it’s been hard. Old habits are tough to break, and when I started listening to music, it seemed like a ten-song minimum was the norm – five to a side on those things we old fogeys like to call cassettes, which by the way held more music than what the even older fogeys called “records” back when those first got started. My ideal these days is still 10-12 tracks – enough to sink my teeth into, but not enough to get boring if the artist has a string of similar-sounding songs or whatnot. But as one gets away from the world of radio-friendly music, things start to get weird. Rather than a bunch of songs all strictly following the same verse/chorus format, frontloaded with hits and backloaded mostly with filler, artists might like to play around with longer jam sessions, or short ambient interludes, or even the structures of multiple songs colliding into one big long track that takes up most of an album. So I’ve tried to adjust my expectations. Still, I know I’m not alone in having this issue – see how much debate Radiohead sparked with The King of Limbs a few years ago. Some of us listeners have biases about these things, whether we acknowledge them or not. And some artists either delight in purposefully testing those biases, or else they just don’t know about them or care in the first place.
This issue came up for me again as I started to get into the latest record by Grizzly Bear, called Shields. With a modest listing of 10 tracks, and one of them merely a brief interlude, while several others are drawn out to five or six minutes, it was easy for me to get caught up in the question of whether there was really enough content here, or whether the band was stalling for time, filling space in between a few good ideas to stretch them into a full-length album. It’s nearly 50 minutes of music. That’s honestly nothing to sneeze at in a world where an album of 12 throwaway pop songs can easily come in under 40 and still leave you unsatisfied. And Grizzly Bear isn’t trying to be pretentious, or avant-garde, or mess with your head, necessarily. Their songs tend to have a lot of experimental and sometimes murky textures, but underneath it all, this is a group that knows a thing or two about vocal harmony, richly layered textures, and even a bit of noisy guitar goodness when a song calls for it. They’ve got the kind of sound that easily intrigues me, but that takes a while before I can completely get used to it. So I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me when a conflict came up similar to the one that I felt during the first few months that I was trying to process Veckatimest back in 2009. There were a few songs right up front that I loved right away. Then, things got quieter and murkier for a bit and I had to pay closer attention. Some of it, I ultimately fell in love with, while a few stubborn songs continued to elude me. Ultimately, an album that I had an ambivalent reaction toward won me over in the end. Veckatimest had the advantage of 12 tracks to choose from, making the ones I didn’t like sting a little less. On Shields, with only nine to choose from, the chasm between the songs I love and the songs I’m indifferent toward or even actively dislike seems a lot wider. It’s just a harder album to get into.
What’s really weird about Shields is that despite the steep learning curve, it’s actually a more aggressive and up-tempo record than Veckatimest. Their previous release had its noisy moments, but for the most part that record focused on the soulful vocal tag team of Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen, not necessarily playing up the pretty, flowery stuff like a lot of harmony-heavy bands would, but using it as a textural link between some of the more muted sounds that came from the guitars, drums, bass, and keyboards. The occasional song brought a band member’s instrumental flare to the forefront – particularly my personal favorite, “Southern Point”, but I think the lion’s share of the attention that the band got was for songs like “Two Weeks” that really piled on the breathtaking vocals. On Shields, both men are still quite admirable in the vocal department – Rossen with his distinctive, somewhat weathered voice and Droste with his dreamier, more velvety one (and I’m ashamed to admit that I may have mixed the two up in my last review). But they rarely sing together – or at leas they rarely emphasize it, perhaps intentionally subverting the gooey goodness a recent convert might have come to expect from them. I think this was the biggest challenge for me, because often those harmonies were what sustained me through some of the more abstract moments on Veckatimest. Here, the aggressive electric-oriented numbers seem to come fast and furious from the band at first, applying the unique Grizzly Bear stamp to a jagged, sort of bluesy, and sort of spaced-out style of rock music, often trading off the two vocalists in interesting ways. Then, out of nowhere, Shields falls into this sort of languid chasm for most of its middle third, reminiscent of some of the sparser tracks on their last album, but more drawn out, more exploratory, in less of a hurry to get anywhere. Sometimes I find interesting textures buried deep in some of these songs, as a wayward melody from the piano or guitar or some woodwind instrument cries to be let out, as if there’s an old jazz or classical record playing somewhere beneath the floorboards. But then there are the times when I think that less might have been more, and that drawing several songs in row out past the five minute mark when most of that time is spent on repetition doesn’t make up for whatever remaining songs might have been left on the cutting room floor. Then the final two songs seem to sneak up on me with their truly massive climaxes, and I find myself wondering how I could have ever started to drift off during that part of the album. It’s a constant conflict for me – one day I think this album is average, the next day suddenly it’s irresistible. I certainly give it a heck of a lot of spins, partially due to the fantastic sense of momentum created by the killer songs at the beginning of it. And I figure that despite the shortcomings of Shields, I owe it a higher-than-average grade just for compelling me to come back again so frequently.
1. Sleeping Ute
The first song is a brilliant introduction to the band if you’ve never heard them, and a great way to get re-acquainted if you’re like me and got on board with Veckatimest. The elements seem familiar – Rossen’s slightly raspy vocals and slightly muddy guitar riffs, Droste underpinning it with acoustic guitar, the occasional harmony vocal, and a few well-timed strikes on the omnichord just to give that distinctive Grizzly Bear signature, and the rhythm section locking into a bounding, syncopated groove. Yet it all feels more potent than anything I’ve heard from these guys before – this is their version of rocking out while still taking care to pay homage to their blues and soul influences. It’s hard to pin the results to any one genre, but I can definitely say the song is anything but sleepy. Rossen sings of being weary in a relationship, physically close to someone yet emotionally distant, comparing himself to a mountain sleeping through the centuries, waiting for some sort of geological activity to wake him up. His vocals often have this confessional, almost apologetic tone to them, as if to say, “I’m sorry the truth hurts, but here’s what I dug up in the unbiased analysis of our relationship”. A dramatic pause each time he signs “But I can’t help myself”, followed by the drums and guitar kicking back in, almost without an exact rhythmic cue, helps to add to the loose, live-band feel of the recording. And Rossen polishes it off with some fine arpeggio playing at the end. It’s just an all around stellar song from the guys that shows their rare ability to be sensitive and aggressive all at once.
2. Speak in Rounds
This one’s a true bait-and-switch – it starts out with this incredibly dry, sustained chord from the keyboard, and Christopher Bear is bumping around on the drums, tapping out a damp rhythm that doesn’t seem to be building up to much of anything Droste’s first lead vocal on the album also seems a bit ragged compared to his usual – it’s as if the band went out of their way to mute all of the colors. It isn’t until Rossen brings in an insistent, chugging acoustic riff midway through the verse that the song picks up steam, and there I can begin to see the genius of it all. This song has taken its fair share of flak from hardcore fans for feeling like a repeat of “Southern Point”, and while I can admit that Rossen’s quick fingerwork as he bangs out those chord changes sounds a lot like his heroic efforts on that earlier song, there’s a different sort of intensity to this one – the guitar is there more for rhythm than melody, and the song’s more about the interplay between Droste and Rossen (one singing the verse, the other the chorus), rather than just having Rossen show off for the whole of it. In that sense, it’s one of the album’s better collaborative tracks, with the keyboards contributing a sound almost like a horn section in one spot, and the drums and bass ramping up to full intensity by the time the song is over. The lyrics, abstract as they are, seem to deal with the struggle to leave a relationship, as the chorus repeats: “Step down just once, learn how to be alone/Come get what’s lost, what’s left, before it’s gone.”
This minute-long interlude seems painfully pointless at first glance – it’s merely an extended bit of spacey reverb left over as the final chord of “Speak in Rounds” fades out. Nothing about it is sonically off-putting, nor does it dawdle for too long, so I can’t say that there’s anything bad about having it here – it could just as easily been the last minute of a longer track 2 and I wouldn’t care either way. It’s the missing tenth song on the album – which I realize only exists in my own mind – that makes this one bug me a little.
4. Yet Again
The third of this record’s instant winners is up next – I’d never call Grizzly Bear a pop band, or even really an indie pop band, but this one proves they know their way around a memorable melody. There’s something pleasingly open about the tone of the guitars here (which, for some reason, reminds me of a rainy day), and the way that the drums don’t start off on full power – Droste’s melody is what slowly pulls you in, and then he starts harmonizing with either Rossen or with bass player Chris Taylor in between the verse and chorus, and it’s one of the few times on the album where I feel like the intertwining vocal melodies I got so used to on the last album are really brought to the forefront. As easily as Droste glides through this one, there’s still a sense of sorrow behind his lyrics – one can almost imagine him wincing as he sings, mulling over some sort of embarrassing defeat. “Take it all in stride/Speak don’t confide/We barely had a case/It’s done before we try/Stop and end by night/A desert in your face.” Not exactly happy thoughts, but you might not realize it at first due to the magic he sprinkles into this song by way of those vintage keyboards he’s so fond of. And you certainly won’t see the end coming (well, I guess you will now that I warned you) – suddenly the drums get all distorted and the electric guitars launch into this space-aged sounding jam sessions, and it’s by far one of the most awesome moments on a record that keeps genuinely surprising me in terms of how loud it’s willing to be and how well the foursome seems to be gelling as a band, downplaying the meticulous studio-craft that was such a hallmark of their previous album.
5. The Hunt
This is the moment where the album takes a sudden nosedive and I’m left wondering what the hell happened. Veckatimest had its share of languid moments where I couldn’t really get into a song or two, but this one honestly just grates. It’s got this eerie sort of stillness to it, with a loose and wayward melody floating atop these slow, brooding piano chords, and I get the image of standing water in my mind, as if “Yet Again” were a crushing tidal wave and this song were the aftermath of the tsunami – no life, no movement, only a mere structure of a building left to return to, its contents slowly rotting in the stagnant cess pool. Droste can make some odd choices with his melodies at times, and normally that keeps me on my toes in a good way, but here, he seems to be moaning as if hung over, while his defeated lyrics seem so committed to vagueness that they keep the listener at a notable distance from understanding the pain: “Prove it all to me/Check again to see/Leave me with no words/If you call again it’s absurd.” The electric guitar contributes a listless melody here that is simultaneously dull and sharp – it’s like nails on a chalkboard at times. I think Chris Taylor may be contributing a clarinet or something in the background – his multi-instrumental skills are an underrated aspect of Grizzly Bear’s unique sound – but it’s so muted that it can’t hope to breathe any life into a tedious and frustrating song.
6. A Simple Answer
Now I can imagine your objection, if you’ve noted my earlier complaint that the middle of the album just drags, and you hear this song kick in with its brisk drum beat in 6/8 time. Shoot, 6/8 played at a reasonably fast tempo is the absolute best time signature for bouncy pop songs, so how could any song with such a rhythm be boring? Well, for one, there’s the piano. The most prominent thing that you are likely to notice is a single, persistent piano chord that just sort of gets banged out in time with the rhythm, and at first it’s sort of a fun percussive effect, but over the course of the song, it just gets incredibly tiresome. There’s a certain “lumbering” sort of personality to the song, and while I can appreciate Grizzly Bear taking a cliche common to catchy pop songs and trying to subvert it, the results are an awful lot like taking a bright, colorful photo and then desaturating all the colors. There just isn’t anything interesting being added to offset the dryness of it. Rossen’s lyrics seem to acknowledge the almost complete lack of joy in the proceedings: “Plod ever onward/Across some tundra/The light is long, but it’s not long before it’s gone/Well, fine.” It’s almost like the song is playing up its own tribute to averageness, and I suppose this would be fine as a short experiment in between more full-bodied songs, but instead it serves as the dividing line between two drawn-out ballads, and the song itself threatens to decay into a ballad when it loses the rhythm midway through and just coasts on a standard, mid-tempo 4/4 for the rest of it. That part’s interesting for some vocal trade-off between Rossen and Droste, but honestly at that point, it’s too little too late. 6 minutes of this is just belaboring the point.
7. What’s Wrong?
One of the band’s most drawn-out and exploratory tunes is up next – the constant here is Christopher Bear’s jazzy drumming, which sets an easygoing pace for the song, but which is often left hanging out there, all by its lonesome, as if he were dutifully keeping time while the other band members took a lunch break. Chris Taylor, who also produces for the band in addition to the numerous musical roles he fulfills for them, made an interesting production choice here, in that the cymbals are crystal clear but the other drums seem muted, locked in a closet almost. Light, improvisational piano fills in some of the gaps, and then there’s also the soft hum of either an oboe or a saxophone – it’s a lower-register reed instrument and it gets buried in the mix at times, so I can’t really tell. There’s a stark beauty to this one at times, though it does run a bit long, almost daring me to assume it’s over before some faint strains of its melody come creeping back again. It’s not the greatest track to listen to if you’re in danger of falling asleep at the wheel (ditto for most of the back half of this album). But if you pay attention to the subtle elements – the meandering melody, the way Droste and Rossen once again trade off vocal parts effortlessly – there’s an alluring smoothness to it that demonstrates the band’s attention to detail, even in what might seem to be a cold, hazy and distant song on first listen.
Here the band fails to wow me with a thoroughly average mid-tempo song that seems to have no ambition other than to just amble along politely and undistinctively. I can’t think of anything on Veckatimest that sounded as wallpaper-y as this – even the lack of rhythm on some tracks was more interesting to me than the auto-pilot rhythm used here. The watery effect filter that the guitars are run through isn’t doing much to give this song an interesting sound, either, so the best thing it’s got going for it is, once again, the call and response between Droste and Rossen. I can see how a song about the fear of confrontation wouldn’t want to make itself known aggressively, but there’s nothing terribly delicate about this approach, either – it’s just dull. More than any other track on this album, I struggle to even find interesting things (positive or negative) to point out about this one, so I guess I should just move on.
9. Half Gate
“Checked out so long… Unhinged, unwound…” Yep, those lyrics are accurate. Due to how much I struggled to stay focused this late in the album, I made the mistake of overlooking this genuinely good track until just recently. It starts off in a bit of a holding pattern, with an odd cello-and-acoustic intro that does little to hint at the mostly electric guitar-based song to follow. It seems like one of those dry mid-tempo songs that we’ve already had too much of from the band, until the chorus sneaks up, and at long last the aggressive side of Daniel Rossen is back, playing an interesting counterpoint to Ed Droste in his usual sensitive mode in the song’s quieter verses. The buildup and release is intentional, and this turns out to be one of the pair’s best collaborations on the album, even if the real star of this show is Christopher Bear, who lets loose with a furious torrent of thundering drums, turning Rossen’s chorus into an exciting climax on an album that I had assumed at this point was just going to meekly show itself out the back door. The song might come down from its climax a bit too quickly, but since several other tracks have overstayed their welcome (and one more’s about to push its limits), I suppose I can’t really complain about that.
10. Sun in Your Eyes
If there’s a time on this album where I actually think taking the long path is appropriate, it’s here at the end, on this seven-minute long composition that takes its sweet time to reach a reasonably euphoric climax, one which I think makes the waiting worthwhile. Any problems I had with the slow, repetitive marching of piano chords in tracks like “The Hunt” and “A Simple Answer” seem to be fixed here, and I feel the same about the unhurried pace of the rhythm, which at times could be an issue in “What’s Wrong?” The structure of that one is similar enough to this final song that I do kind of question the logic of putting both on the same album. But my main issue with “Foreground”, the finale on Veckatimest, was that it faded away just as it was hitting its emotional peak, and that certainly isn’t an issue here. One can sense the strain of the weary climber Rossen seems to be empathizing with here, one determined to beat the odds despite the cruel sun beating down on him, and the band seems held back out of reverence at first, but at each chorus, it’s as if the climber has crested a summit and the slow march becomes a celebratory parade, ringing out grandly with stately piano and horns and a truly glowing fanfare of a melody. It seems like they spend almost half the song building to the final, climactic reprise of this melody, with the music even coming to an eerie stop several times – you can almost hear the players shifting in their seats, waiting for their cue to hit that next tense note and then stop again. It reminds me of the false ending in the Sigur Rós song “Heysátan”, except that there’s still more good stuff to come back to after the huge, pregnant pause. And the grand finale here is one that the band should be proud of, every member contributing his utomst to the joyous celebration of sounds as Rossen repeats his mantra, “So bright, so long/I’m never coming back.” Shields ends with the feeling of finally having escaped something. Whatever it is, it feels damn good.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Sleeping Ute $2
Speak in Rounds $1.75
Yet Again $1.75
The Hunt -$.25
A Simple Answer $.50
What’s Wrong? $.75
Half Gate $1.25
Sun in Your Eyes $1.25
Ed Droste: Lead vocals, keyboards, guitar, omnichord
Daniel Rossen: Lead vocals, guitars, keyboards
Chris Taylor: Bass, backing vocals, wind instruments
Christopher Bear: Drums, percussion, backing vocals
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Originally published on Epinions.com.