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Grizzly Bear shines on “Shields”

Kristen Durbin | Tuesday, September 25, 2012

I’ve been a fan of Grizzly Bear since I heard two tracks of its 2009 breakthrough album “Veckatimest” at the end of my senior year of high school. After spending a summer and a year of college getting lost in their lush, layered, hard-to-categorize folk pop melodies, I saw the Brooklyn quartet perform live at Lollapalooza 2010 in one of my favorite sets of a weekend that included the likes of Arcade Fire, Phoenix, The National, MGMT and Spoon. 

Against such stiff competition, Grizzly Bear held its own and rose above the fray of festival mediocrity as its four members performed in a horizontal line across the stage.

Now, after two years of frequently returning to “Veckatimest” and the band’s earlier releases, “Yellow House” and “Horn of Plenty,” and wondering when I’d be hearing from them again, Grizzly Bear’s fourth full-length release, Shields, has risen above the barrage of new fall albums to become one of my top albums of the year. 

Though it retains the sumptuous sonic fabric of “Veckatimest,” “Shields” weaves a darker, more instrumentally intricate tapestry of sound that employs the band’s signature blend of vocal harmonies, orchestral arrangements and rhythmic guitar to frame its introspective lyrical content. 

As usual, lead vocalist Ed Droste’s utterly unique voice distinguishes the band from its contemporaries, but Christopher Bear’s drumming is a true highlight of this record, whether it drives the standout album opener “Sleeping Ute” or provides some syncopated retro flavor to the single “Yet Again.” 

But on the whole, the band sounds more cohesive and unified on Shields than in albums past, striking the delicate balance between a wide variety of instruments and accent sounds to tie everything together.

The album gets off to a rolling, guitar-led start with one of its first singles in “Ute.” Daniel Rossen’s slightly twangy guitar complements Bear’s rollicking drumbeat, and the two instruments merge with Chris Taylor’s auxiliary percussion sounds to create a psychedelic yet classic Grizzly Bear track. 

Two of my favorite tracks off the album follow with “Speak in Rounds” and the second single, “Yet Again.” On the former, Rossen and Bear again drive the band from a subdued opening to a powerful climax with train-like guitar and drum parts reminiscent of the dynamic opener off Veckatimest, “Southern Point,” while Droste and Rossen’s vocal harmonies add another layer to the multifaceted production. 

On the somewhat old-school “Yet Again,” Grizzly Bear’s signature production style shines through, as the atmospheric echoes of the tambourine, percussion and vocals create the illusion of having been recorded in a cavernous room. During the chorus, everything but the drums drop out to highlight a piece of the band’s advice for rolling with life’s punches: “Take it all in stride/Speak don’t confide.”

At once distant musically and intimate lyrically, “Shields” weaves through the prodding piano and lovelorn vocals of “The Hunt,” the strong strings and dissonant chords of “What’s Wrong” and beachy pop sounds of “gun-shy” before arriving at its epic, seven-minute ending with the expansive “Sun in Your Eyes.” Beginning and ending with sparse, lingering piano chords, the album’s “Foreground” features Droste’s haunting vocals among crests and troughs of volume and instrumentation. 

It may not have a crossover pop single fit to accompany a European car commercial a la “Two Weeks,” but “Shields” is a satisfying auditory experience through and through. But even after enveloping my ears in 47 minutes of excellent music, something leaves me wanting more from the band and hoping their seemingly definitive proclamation of “So long/I’m never coming back” doesn’t apply to their recording career. 

Contact Kristen Durbin at
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The views in this column are those of the author and  not necessarily those of The Observer.