Grizzly Bear’s new album overshoots the mark
Album Review | 3 out of 5 stars
Published: Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 00:09
In indie rock, Grizzly Bear may occupy a space entirely its own, but the Brooklyn band and its career trajectory is starting to look an awful lot like Arcade Fire’s two years earlier. Both groups’ first official albums — I’m going to disregard Grizzly Bear’s “Horn of Plenty” (2004) since it was mainly an Ed Droste solo effort — “Yellow House” (2006) and “Funeral” (2004), respectively, were stunning successes within the critical sphere and afforded the band’s small but devoted fan bases.
Both of their follow−ups, Grizzly Bear’s “Veckatimest” (2009) and Arcade Fire’s “Neon Bible” (2007), became enormous hits with music publications and indie enthusiasts alike. With Arcade Fire’s 2010 effort, “The Suburbs,” they reached the pinnacle of musical achievement, winning the Grammy Award for Album of the Year.
Now, two years later, it’s time for Grizzly Bear to step back into the spotlight and release their third full−length album. Though it may not garner enough steam for a Grammy win — or even a nomination this coming December — “Shields” marks an interesting step forward for the band that has built a reputation on a unique brand of hazy, psychedelic folk. Although many tracks here are some of the greatest the boys have ever penned, the LP gets bogged down by a number of weaker moments that ultimately keep this album from reaching its potential.
The record kicks off with lead single “Sleeping Ute,” a track first publicized this past June. The song is clearly Daniel Rossen’s baby, and it’s a logical step forward from his “Silent Hour/Golden Mile” EP released this past March. A jangling guitar sweeps its way through embellished chords. Instrumentation builds and layers into a beautifully chugging machine. After the addition of a few subtle but puzzling sound effects — something in there sounds like a pinball machine — everything drops out, leaving a sparse coda of Rossen’s voice and a quickly fingerpicked guitar reminiscent of so many Fleet Foxes tracks. It’s an unbelievable gem and a candidate for one of the best tracks of the year.
The brilliance of “Sleeping Ute” is what makes “Shields’” inadequate points all the more painful. Though tracks like “Speak in Rounds” and “Half Gate” are undeniably catchy in their own right, they remain static throughout or take far too long to develop their musical ideas. Meanwhile, the low points in the album are almost insultingly bereft of redeeming material. “The Hunt” has one of the flattest vocal melodies this year, and “What’s Wrong” is a six−minute, slowly lumbering ballad that’s near impossible to get through without losing total interest.
Nevertheless, about half of the album’s tracks are so superb that they almost collectively atone for their counterparts’ missteps. “Yet Again” begins with crisp, cascading chords and features some of the most delicately beautiful vocals that Droste has ever sung. The song quickly builds until the final minute’s chaotic climax of synths, guitars and Christopher Bear’s pounding drum set. “A Simple Answer” is the bouncy centerpiece that does fantastic work in splitting up vocal duties between the two front men, and “Gun Shy” sounds like a warbly, modern day take on The Temptations.
Closer “Sun in Your Eyes” is a seven−minute voyage that starts with Rossen’s restrained voice and a few solitary piano chords, but ends with lush orchestration and triumphant vocal harmonies. Grizzly Bear’s penchant for formulating vast baroque compositions is at its best here, and provides the finest example of just how dazzlingly these men can be when they collaborate evenly.
For all of its faults, “Shields” succeeds in capitalizing on all of what made Grizzly Bear great for their first two albums. The band consistently conveys an intense emotion through its fluctuating song structures and dynamic shifts. There’s plenty of promise for the next album, and one can only hope that, with a little more focus, the band will breed something that’s truly out of this world.