Their four-part harmonies and acoustic instruments and wooded tone and, even, their faunae band-name meant that, for many, Grizzly Bear were folkies. It wasn't the most accurate perception —not at least since Christopher Taylor took over production duties on 2006's Yellow House, thereby making their albums shrines to meticulous sound and arrangement— but it was one that was never so wildly inaccurate that anyone was bothered by it hanging around. But the truth was something else, this band making chamber-pop-ish records full of choirboy vocals were, actually, secretly, a band full of jazz nerds.
Ed Droste wasn't, which meant that Grizzly Bear weren't born that way. They were his solo project at first, but when he invited on Chris Bear as percussionist, multi-instrumentalist, and recording helper, Bear (surname coincidental) eventually invited along Taylor and Daniel Rossen; the three of them friends that'd met playing and studying jazz at NYU. Owen Pallet once called a childhood studying modern composition the equivalent of a bout of polio —something one had to overcome, heroically— and so it felt with the jazz pasts of Bear, Rossen, and Taylor.
Which leads us to Shields, on which those jazz pasts resurface in the Grizzly Bear present. It was always going to be a difficult task following up 2009's Veckatimest —one of the best albums of the whole last decade— and, in turn, it's no surprise that Grizzly Bear have made a more difficult album for listeners to get a handle on.
Shields kicks the Spector-ish walls-of-sound and contrapuntal vocal rounds and pop-song structures to the curb: introducing the world to the darker, denser, more sprawling, challenging, and kinda lost-sounding Grizzly Bear. A band of jazz musicians bringing out their chops, but never landing in the pocket.
A Jazzy Study
Shields is a vast, proggy odyssey, a stretched-out sprawl whose shape-shifting songs have a wandering compositional approach and an exploratory sensibility. If past LPs were defined by their harmony, here there's even stretches interested in discordance; if past LPs were united by their vocal harmonies, here Droste and Rossen's voices are left on their lonesome, sounding lonely amidst the studious, chin-scratchin' jams. If the past harmoniousness gave Grizzly Bear the feeling of togetherness —a band communing in choral crooning— then, now, here, the band sounds like one pulling away from each other, yanking at the ties that band, bristling at the structures they've built up.
"What's Wrong" is an ambling outing in which Droste and Rossen handball vocals back-and-forth; Bear's drums shuck and skim and splash with jazziness; and the strings have a contrasting, friction-causing sense of modern compositional atonalism to them. "A Simple Answer" is anything but simple: six minutes of exploratory sprawl with cascading vocals, multi-layered woodwinds, and hand-etched piano buried underneath the buffered drumbeats. "Sun In Your Eyes" is even longer, the album closer seven monstrous minutes in which a piano-ballad explodes into an explosion of brightness; all gleaming synths and color-graded strings and saturated handclaps, with vocals ricocheting and scattering like a handful of hundreds-and-thousands dropped in a glass bowl.
There's a lot going on, but in a way that doesn't feel contained, but always on the verge of not-quite-working. It's Taylor's great skill —his, we could say it, greatness— as a producer that manages to hold anything; he the one keeping his hand tight on the reins, keeping the record on some kind of course. Like Veckatimest before it, this is a brilliantly produced album; an LP worthy of serious study through a pair of high-grade headphones.
But, as it so often seems to be in regards to art, that word 'worthy' is a critical backhander; the worthiness of that serious study underlining the fact that the record is something to be contemplated and appreciated, but not to be simply loved. Given its predecessor was an album beloved by all —a soundtrack to summers; that album that's a joy to throw on — Shields will be an unwelcome surprise for many. Its lack of simple pleasures —its jazz-student nerdiness— makes Shields rewarding, but undeniably disappointing.
Record Label: Warp
Release Date: September 18, 2012