Grizzly Bear‘s 2009 album, Veckatimest, broke them into the mainstream. That jangly baroque pop melody of “Two Weeks” was in everyone’s ears, and rightfully so. The band has returned with a new album, entitled Shields, and the Draw Us Lines staff is here to explore the record and share our thoughts. We have lots of thoughts, and some of us are more intimately familiar with the band than others. You probably have your own thoughts about the band—and this record—already, but you’re going to want to read we have to say. Think of this as a big discussion. We want you to be involved, and we’re just kicking it all off.
This one sure is a grower. I’ve enjoyed it more with every listen. It’s an album that has subtleties and intricacies that take time to sip on and actually notice (see the synthesizer work that starts midway through “Sleeping Ute”). The crazy catchy melodies and Droste’s vocals almost make it difficult to notice those deeper pieces of Shields. Not knocking on it, just mentioning it. I don’t think it’s an easy listen, but I like and hate that about it. The music snob in me says that all music should have complexity and multiple layers of enjoyment, but that’s stupid. Some of the greatest music of all time is great because of how simple and accessible it is. I love it when I contradict myself.
“Sleeping Ute”, “A Simple Answer”, and “Gun-Shy” are the shining starts of the album for me. All three songs are extremely well written, but even more importantLY, all three are memorable. I’ve given the album about 3 listen-throughs and when I try to think back to my favorite moments, it is those 3 songs. My dilemma is that I cannot really remember anything else. Maybe it will take more time with Shields and three great songs on a single album is an accomplishment that very few bands hit, but it doesn’t make it jump out as great.
As good as the three songs mentioned above are, the album lacks a “Two Weeks”. I think indie fans will eat this album up, but I don’t see it gaining traction with the general public like Veckatimest because of the lack of that bona fide single that you’ll hear on TV, movies, and the radio. To me, it’s a damn good album that I’ll continue listening to for a while, but 3 years from now it will just be another album that came out in 2012 that wasn’t bad.
I’ve listened to Yellow House and Veckatimest and have always been as appreciative of Grizzly Bear‘s expertise as I’ve been bored by their actual songs. There were highlights here and there on both of those albums, but nothing transcendent enough to make me want to dig into the entirety of either. “Two Weeks” is a great, great pop song, but it just makes every other beautiful dirge on Veckatimest seem interchangeable by comparison.
So I’m really surprised to find myself liking Shields. It’s still very clearly a Grizzly Bear album, but I think all the band’s compositional genius and manicured instrumentation are actually being put to use here on something that matters. I’ve always wondered, with each of their previous releases, how a band could engender this much attention and critical fawning while still sounding as utterly detached as Grizzly Bear. It could just be me, but none of their work ever moved me. I always had the (probably unfair) impression that they were a band convinced of its coolness, and too high above its colleagues to really deign to feel anything other than ironic detachment, or an ersatz version of human emotion. Shields provides welcome evidence to the contrary.
The first single “Sleeping Ute,” also the album’s first song, is definitely the album’s “Two Weeks,” a solid pop song that I expected to enjoy before going back to feeling nothing for the rest of the album, as I had always done before. But other tunes like “Yet Again,” the Fiona Apple-esque “A Simple Answer,” and especially album closer “Sun in Your Eyes” are aggressive and emotionally resonant enough to make this worthy of more than the few forced-listens I’ve given to the band’s prior works. Grizzly Bear was never going to make an Arcade Fire-style album of stadium anthems, but they’ve finally crafted a suite of songs where things are actually at stake, where things deserve a little bit of aggression, a little bit of bombast, and Shields delivers it all, wonderfully.
I came to this album not knowing much about Grizzly Bear, save a two week period [Ed. note: *rimshot*!] in my life a couple years ago when I became obsessed with the song “Two Weeks” from their previous album, Veckatimest. I played it over and over again, literally pushing the repeat button on iTunes, hypnotized by its swirling harmonies and that simple repetitive note on the piano. I sent it to friends, told them I had found the modern day Beach Boys, and added the song to more mixtapes than it deserved. At some point, the song released its grasp on my life and I went back to my normal listening patterns, but for whatever reason, I left the rest of the Grizzly Bear canon untouched until now.
On first listen, Shields isn’t what I expected. Gone is the emphasis on vocal harmonies that I guess I had assumed was the hallmark of the band, though their influences are at the forefront as strongly as ever. Maybe because my brain is an ever-growing catalogue of music, or I’m just getting older and everything reminds me of something else, it seemed impossible to ignore the influence of the Beatles and other 70s rock bands, at first to the point of distraction.
But Shields is a complex album that requires repeat listens. Unlike its predecessor, it doesn’t have an equivalent to the catchy “Two Weeks.” The first track, “Sleeping Ute,” is one big zig zag of a song, hitting the brakes at one point to change gears completely. It’s almost as if the song has multiple acts, or movements. On “Yet Again,” right when it feels as though the song should be wrapping up, it takes a turn into a full minute of the band lashing out at their instruments. In other spots, songs from the album meld themselves together so well that I was fooled into thinking they were the same track.
With each listen, something new reveals itself, and the overall picture of the album as a whole gradually materializes. At the same time, the influences I’d heard began to fade away, becoming instead a starting point for the album. The album feels rooted in the familiar, but there are a lot of original, interesting ideas floating around. Shields is not immediately accessible, instead, the listener has to earn the rewards of the album. It’s worth the effort.
A lot of my musical comrades ranted on and on about Veckatimest after it was released in 2009. I waited a bit before diving in, mainly because I heard Grizzly Bear in passing a few times, and always had a very lukewarm reaction to their work. I tried to temper my expectations, as I do with most super-hyped releases, and found that I couldn’t escape the far-reaching grasp of “Two Weeks”. The haunting, yet mysteriously bright composition pulled me and I finally succumbed to the temptation of Veckatimest. There’s some hope here, right?
I listened. I listened some more. I kept trying. I talked about the album with friends. It wasn’t just limited to Grizzly Bear — I remember a lot of albums falling off of my radar as quickly as they appeared in 2009. Was I losing my appreciation for new releases? Was I on a different wavelength than my musical peers suddenly? Was this a turning point where I would start to tell all these flourishing artists to get off my lawn?
None of those were applicable. Looking back on it, I think Scott McMicken of Dr. Dog sums up in a 2012 release what I was repeatedly asking of Grizzly Bear at the time: “Will you do the trick?” The two strongest songs in Veckatimest came first and I was left waiting for much more throughout the entire album. It just didn’t do the trick. I gained a small appreciation for the album and filed it away. I visited the album like one would visit high school friends after moving to college — often after the split, less after developing a new social circle, and even less after picking up a full-time job relatively far away. I gave up. I moved on.
So, why is there so much info on their last album? With that experience behind me, I truly hoped that Grizzly Bear would redeem themselves with Shields, and in Braddock-like style, the stage was set for a Cinderella Man performance. My anticipation was slowly creeping up.
In short, I was pleasantly surprised on first listen and it felt effortless to connect with Shields. My expectations were exceeded and the album did the trick this time around. The instrumentation is thick. Grizzly Bear truly honed their sound and wrote with direction. Production quality is a notch higher than their last release. Each arrangement, especially “Sun In Your Eyes” with its roller coaster dynamics, has a deep level of thoughtfulness and focus behind it.
As for overall structure, Shields starts in similar fashion to Veckatimest. I’ll admit I was a bit worried that the album would drop off after the first two songs. The drummer killed it during “Sleeping Ute” — very supportive and avoided detracting from the first impression. “Speak in Rounds” made me want to travel across Montana or the Midwest via train. I had to settle for London to Brighton — go ahead and mute the video while you play the music in the background if you’re feeling adventurous. It teased out the traveler in me and I immediately added it to my driving playlist.
After hearing “Yet Again”, with its vocals serving as a brother in timbre & presentation to Dallas Greene, I knew I wasn’t headed for a cliff this time. The fleeting guitars and vocals about three minutes in, the unexpected bass lines, and the descent into a touch of chaos at the end of “Yet Again” flowed seamlessly. “A Simple Answer” channeled some of that hauntingly bright instrumentation left over from “Two Weeks”. A hypnotic, laid back mood developed by the outro of “A Simple Answer” and was in full swing by “Gun-Shy”. This was a wise move in song ordering and structuring on the album and provided solid contrast for the last two songs of the album.
I wasn’t left waiting for more with Shields because, unlike Veckatimest, it didn’t cast me out to sea and leave me with relatively somber, slow songs at the end. The last twelve minutes of the album were just as strong as the first twelve. Grizzly Bear made me feel as though I found purpose and meaning in my life all over again with Half Gate. I’m a sucker for panning instruments in the mix and there was a lovely guitar lead with some airy effects at the end of the track. There is a time and place for panning, and although I wasn’t was experiencing symptoms of vertigo or feeling clicks in the base of my neck like TTV by Telefon Tel Aviv while wearing my headphones, I think this tasteful little idea was the icing on the cake. Chris Taylor, if this was your call, then I give a tip of my hat to you in honor of your technical discretion and vision. Grizzly Bear ended the album with guns-a-blazing with “Sun in Your Eyes”. The layering and slow crescendo about 5 minutes in, followed by a slight lull, and then capped off with the explosion of instruments really caught me off guard and help push the overall album up in my book.
Those last two songs helped push Shields to a final rating of 4 out of 5 Brimley-staches.
My experiences with Grizzly Bear go way back. I’m not trying to play the hipster cred card here—I swear, I’m not like that—I just think that my personal past with this band has strongly influences how I experience their music. I saw the band back in October 2005 when they traveled to my college in the middle of nowhere in upstate New York to open for the French Kicks. My buddies and I went because, hey, there was nothing else to do. There, in “The Annex”, a large empty warehouse of a room, Grizzly Bear spellbound me. They sat cross-legged on a tiny stage covered in rugs, five of them in a line no more than 10 feet from me. They snapped their fingers and clapped their hands during “Fix It” and I can still hear those little sounds in my mind. It was magical. My roommate and I bought the CD, Horn of Plenty, and played it in our dorm for weeks on end. We sang along. We laughed. We harmonized. (Kinda.)
Yellow House came out the next year and I eagerly bought it online, looking for more weirdo, lo-fi, droning, hissy, folk pop. I was admittedly disappointed. Where was the intrigue, the sense of wonderment, the feeling of mystery and ages-old secrets being passed down in beautiful melodies sung over softly-strummed guitars and cassette tape hums? I missed it. Nevertheless, I eagerly snatched a ticket to see Grizzly Bear play at The Warhol Museum in October 2007, shortly after I moved to Pittsburgh. When I went to the bathroom downstairs before the show, I saw the band sitting in the café so I went over to say hello. I happened to be wearing a hoodie from my college (where they had just played the week before, again, by coincidence) so we chatted about that. They were super friendly. When we reconvened upstairs, they played a gorgeous set of tunes from Yellow House and reworked versions of songs from Horn of Plenty, incorporating their newfound hi-fi glory. I was a fan reborn, and listened to Yellow House a lot that year.
Naturally, then, I bought Veckatimest on vinyl when it came out. I was a recent turntable acquirer and vinyl enthusiast, and one of the first bands I felt like I discovered for myself and loved was releasing a new record. It was exciting. The magic of “Two Weeks” made its ensuing popularity well-deserved, but that was about it for me. The record never hit me in the gut, or the heart, or the brain. (Certainly not in the crotch, but I didn’t expect that from these dudes.) Even now, I can’t hear the songs in my head. They didn’t stick. When I spin the album, it sounds good and somewhat fresh, and I enjoy it, but it doesn’t fire me up, neither physically nor emotionally.
That’s exactly what I was hoping for with Shields. I’ve abandoned any hope that Grizzly Bear would forget about their widespread indie appeal, strip away all the sonic trappings, and record an album on an 8-track in a tiny bathroom. (And yet, I totally think they should do that. They just won’t anymore.) I just wanted something that would connect with me, bring me back in touch with the band I’d grown to admire and love. I think that Shields has done exactly that but—like many great growers-not-showers—it’s hard [hah] to tell just yet.
There’s a thread to this album, and I’m trying to suss it out over many listens. Three tunes form the major plot points, for me: “Sleeping Ute”, “A Simple Answer”, and “Gun-Shy”, with “A Simple Answer” being the huge highlight for me. (If I had to listen to one Grizzly Bear song, and only one, for the rest of my life, it would be “Fix It”, but if I could pick two, “A Simple Answer” is next in line for sure.) Overall, there’s less of the down-tempo introspection and movement-by-way-of-stasis you’d find on Yellow House, and less of the hooky, reaching-for-the-general-public poppiness of some parts of Veckatimest. This album feels like it comes from the band I know and loved from the very beginning; they just happen to have a bigger budget and some technology at their disposal, and they know how to use it. It’s full of excellent pop/rock music; it’s engaging yet deep, intricate yet listenable. I really, really like it.
In a way, it’s hard to say more than that just yet. Even with almost a dozen listens under my ears’ belt, I just know that I enjoy it. Do I love it? Is it a life-changer? Is it in my top three of 2012? Only time will tell. But the fact that I’m even asking those questions of myself speaks wonders about this record. If anything, it deserves your attention; it begs for a devoted listen or six, and it earns those listens.
Grizzly Bear is a great band. Not just because their music is interesting and complicated and engaging in all the best ways, but because they’re very interested (going back to the very beginning) in creating landscapes with sound experimentation and composition. Their records, with the exception of Veckatimest, all sound like they are recorded in a swamp or wetland somewhere, where insects and other small creatures make noises like instruments, and these gentlemen are merely wielding that cacophony around them into a shape. All this of course while catching your ear and making you nod your head (which is really the most important part).
Shields has that sense again to me, and that’s why I warm up to it right from the first few notes of “Sleeping Ute”. It just has that primordial folky sound they mastered on Yellow House, that sound from somewhere in the mud, and the composition itself with rumbling timpani and intermittent tambourines for extra texture (bonus points for subtle synthesized pulses)—the whole thing is just really well-done. Daniel Rossen’s lyric is quintessential Rossen and that is a relief (recommended listening is his excellent EP from this year, Silent Hour/Golden Mile), “If I could lie still as that gray hill, but I can’t help myself”. Basically I dig how it balances restlessness with a kinship with nature. That’s true blue Grizzly Bear.
And yeah, the songs where Rossen and Edward Droste trade particulars, be it guitar, vocals, or anything else, always ignites energy to their music. “Speak in Rounds” has this sense with a Droste verse and Rossen chorus, which has a land-speed effect of slowing down and pushing then throttle to ramp up what’s at stake in the song. The third proper song, “Yet Again” just immediately has all this depth to take care of, with a very active ground floor of bass and drums and that gorgeous harmonized wordless chorus and no out-of-control crescendos. I also want to add that few bands take care of silent or near-silent moments as well as Grizzly Bear can (on record at least), and I love that they’ve incorporated that into their sound again. You can feel the room they recorded in, and that is the Grizzly Bear I know and love.
This record will likely be overrated but it’s very good and for my money a step forward from Veckatimest which sacrificed the depth and “swampy” vibes for streamlined catchier-than-fuck melodies. Kyle, I dig. Four watering holes out of five.
That’s what we thought. What do you have to say? Do you agree with one or more of us? Were we all totally off base? Do you have an opinion to share? Leave us some comments and we’ll chat. One of the great things about listening to music is finding other people with whom to talk about it, so bring it on!