Three years ago Grizzly Bear broke through the back of the wardrobe into radio-friendly land with their third album Veckatimest. Their distinctive sound reached the fervent gig goer, the regular festival fan and even the sporadic music buyer. Thanks to Grizzly Bear and a minor bonanza of like-minded US bands such as Midlake and Fleet Foxes emerging that year: alt-folk had become fashionable. Hell, they even released the single ‘While you Wait for the Others’ with 80’s pop legend Michael McDonald performing guest vocals with astounding consequences (great to rediscover those pipes).
Pad gently forward to today and the question is whether Grizzly Bear move further into chamber folk/pop realms (like Fleet Foxes did with their follow up album) or go off-piste entirely? Perhaps inspired by Radiohead (Grizzly Bear opened for them on tour in 2008), they have chosen to push the envelope by stealth instead. Their new offering Shields, maintains Grizzly Bears’ signature sound, from their fragile build and sustain symphonies to their multi-directional ‘ooh ahh oohs’ that underpin most songs. Yet, this album melts the ephemeral qualities of Yellow House (their 2nd album) with the more intuitive Veckatimest. Shields works better if you listen in a linear fashion (that’s right kids, from tracks 1 through to 10 – in order) to become part of the journey of highs and lows, pop stomps to reflective soundscapes.
As main man Ed Droste says “Veckatimest was a little more of a polite album; the desire to keep the vocals smooth might have kept a little distance between us and the audience. This one feels a bit more rough and exposed, so that on Shields, everything speaks for itself.”
There are three tracks which will fire up the fans who came on board the last time. Sleeping Ute twirls its tassels at you as an opener. Rockets and fireworks prop up the words ‘but I can’t help myself’ followed by a 70’s space infused sound with a guitar romp that propels the song forward. It then shifts into a gentle denouement, Ed Droste’s lone voice over Spanish guitar strumming – the quiet after the meteorite storm, heartfelt pleas after a musical tantrum.
Speak in Rounds is a high tempo canter which has been compared to eighties throwback artists of late Metronome, but GB did it first with much more aplomb. The guitar and drum line have you running to keep up – before a brass section comes in to ramp up the adrenaline.
Yet Again is probably the standout track for many which has done pretty well as a single. It invites empathy in that Grizzly Bear way, these are crumpled spirits using their searching heartfelt voices to fight the intangible beast at his own game: ‘take it all in stride, speak don’t confide, we barely have a case, it’s done before we try it’s darkened and by night, a desert in your face.’ This is as mainstream as Shields gets (not very) but there always a reminder that obscure influences are there from late Scott Walker (the sound of someone bashing a random object woven into the background) to a web of echo and reverb towards the end of the song that sounds like it’s been pulled backwards through the amps.
On the remainder of tracks Grizzly Bear walk the line between experimentation and natty melody. What’s Wrong is bursting with angular violin sounds, fractured surges that melt into nothing and descend into lone piano and percussion before their familiar close harmonies (more agh, ooh, ahs) come in like a Horlicks blanket over your whisky ravaged body. It’s like Peter and the Wolf on acid and it’s marvelous.
And The Hunt is quiet and lonely with an off-mic sound of guitar and lap steel whilst Adelma is amniotic like a stranded submarine.
This time, we get a sense that Ed Droste and co-singer Daniel Rossen are totally together on tracks rather than taking turns. Rossen is the richer darker troubled soul to Droste’s slightly more upbeat face on things and they definitely compliment each other. On Shields they wrote songs together, in what seemed like a hiatus between the band members’ solo projects, and there’s a feeling or urgency and rawness here. The majestic Sun in Your Eyes the seven minute epic closing track was originally a piano melody that Droste penned but flung aside only to be picked up by Rossen again for further work. Indicative of the album, if you let yourself float along with it, it’s stunning.
So Grizzly Bear have moved up a notch on the intensity meter. It’s a heady game to play, but one they just about pull off. If you go along with their unique journey, Shields definitely solders itself onto your heart.
Review by: Selina Ream