REVIEW: Grizzly Bear - "Shields"


Grizzly Bear - Shields
Release Date - September 18, 2012
Record Label - Warp

Depending on how you see it, "Two Weeks" was either the blessing or the curse for Grizzly Bear's previous effort, Veckatimest.  The hooky pop track belongs up there in the indie pantheon of great songs like Spoon's "The Way We Get By" or the Flaming Lips' "Do You Realize??"  But, Grizzly Bear's never been that concerned with being pop tunesmiths.  Their records plumb a consistent harmonic range: one part folk rock, one part experimental pop, one part baroque composition.  For this reason, the band's popularity has something to do with their niche as a delightful throwback outfit. We are meant to listen in full rather than piecemeal (as so often happens with streaming media, individual tracks for sale, etc).  Hence their way of progressing through an album (and from album to album) provides a stunning example of superior musicianship, subtlety, and beautiful songcrafting. "Two Weeks," with its singalongablitity, its clever sheen, and its seeming commercial viability, popped so hard out of the texture of Veckatimest that it seemed to overshadow the totality of the album.  

Two-plus years later, Shields, the group's fourth effort, borrows in certain ways from Grizzly Bear's second album, the lustrous and melancholic Yellow House.  It's hard to find a track that sticks out through the totality of this record.  At the same time, I'm not sure that placed in the progression of this band's albums, one would be able to pick this record out as the latest composition.  "Sleeping Ute," which opens the album, is chock-ablock with Grizzly Bearisms.  The rampant riffing from electric to acoustic guitar, the harmonic hit, the electronic flourish for a bridge, each of these would be at home in their previous records.  And, well, you'd have to admit -- if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

In contrast to Veckatimest is the composition on Shields.  While their previous record moved through mysterious harmonic combinations and spatial sounding vocals -- see "Dory" or "Fine for Now" -- Shields is much more single-minded.  "What's Wrong," the apparent inheritor of Grizzly Bear's work on the previously mentioned tracks, works as a musical dialectic rather than a melodic bending venture.  Even the most single-ready element of the record, "Yet Again," pops by virtue of Ed Dorste's honeyed vocal range which is accompanied by harmonic elements that conjure up your parent's record collection of early 70s folk rock.  Meanwhile the rhythm section, highlighted by Chris Taylor's bass work, manages to weave the whole thing together.  

Cohesive layering rules in Shields. While Veckatimest seemed hell bent on pitching elements of the band against one another, Shields keeps  everything in place and builds bridges, such as the one between Dorste and Dan Rossen's vocals on "Speaking in Rounds" where the orgasmic build-up results in more instrumentation.  Grizzly Bear always seem to find one more sound to pull out right when they need it.  While for other groups, it would probably pull the tracks apart, Grizzly Bear's ability to reach toward a new sound within the context that they've set up makes Shields consistently surprising. The Dirty Projectors sounding vocals on "gun-shy" (could they actually be poking or referencing "The Gun Has No Trigger"?) is underscored with slow-jammy R and B rhythms that jam into hand claps and that signature guitar sound which makes you want to listen to "Knife" (from Yellow House) all over again.

So, while appreciation and pleasure are ensured from this record, it's perhaps time to ask that awkward question -- should we be asking for more?  To be sure, it's a question which is probably impossible to answer effectively and convincingly.  What more should we be asking from a record than its innate goodness?  It's the joy of sitting and listening to a good friend's new stories for the first time.  Even if the new stories sound sometimes like they're piecing it out of parts of the old ones, they're still new, right?  While I don't doubt that Shields will be an engrossing listen years from now, two plus years removed from their last release, what is the different new ground that we're taken on?  Of course the same could be asked of records by Andrew Bird and Sharon Van Etten, which also came out this year. Both tread an established pattern which are, like Grizzly Bear, unique, which sound like a gentle haunting -- a reminder of who you once were.  As listeners, we know that haunting all too well, we're the ghosts reminding bands of how they sounded and how we want them to sound.  And while we measure bands by what they do, the sword cuts both ways.  We also wait and wonder about what bands don't do.

Grizzly Bear's too comfortable in their own skin to be worried about us not getting into Shields. The familiarity and ways in which this album alludes to their previous work is part of the charm.  It's a reminder that in looking at a band's entire catalog we can't always strive for evolution or progression, but for something different.  Each band seems to define this in their own way.  Perhaps the dilemma for Grizzly Bear is that it feels, somewhere in the middle of this album, like we should be getting something else from it -- perhaps more acute lyrics or a tune or two to break us from our expectations.  This is a continuing game that we play with bands, what we expect and what we're given.  Grizzly Bear hasn't let down on expectations yet.  But sometimes, the bigger jump is by changing what we want.  Shields doesn't do that.    


  1. I too was looking for a change in here... the only 2 changes I noticed and enjoyed where Daniel Rossen's scratchy voice and Daniel and Ed exchanging moments in the same song.
    I thought that was disappointing at some point but after exploring and exploring the album I got the conclusion that they converged their best in these tracks; not as innovative as the gaps between last albums expressed but trying to perfectionate what they do and succeeding.

  2. Oddly enough I felt like Shields was different enough than Veckitmest and Yellow House that I could enjoy it far more. It's far more direct. In it's placement of melody (it's at the forefront this time) to the composition. It's why I actually like Shields more than their previous work.

    It's weird that "gun-shy" and "Gun Has No Trigger Can" can be link but pretty much impossible for them to be related since both bands were recording their albums at the same time and Grizzly Bear went into isolation. But two bands from Brooklyn sounding magically similar is nothing new.

    Interesting take-away though.

  3. Of the handful of albums I listened to this year, this is one of my faves.