Grizzly Bear's fantastic new album

20:51, Oct 01 2012

I've only written about Grizzly Bear once before - and that was a brief post when the band's 2009 album, Veckatimest was released. But Shields, the band's latest, really does seem like a reason to celebrate - it's the group's most immediate, most accessible/digestible record. And yet it still holds secrets, requires plenty of listening time - in the best possible way. And it might very well be their best album.

I really got hooked on Grizzly Bear with the Friend EP - a full-length album of remixes, covers and leftovers. That took me to Yellow House (2006) and then back to 2004's debut full lengther, Horn of Plenty. Yellow House has some gems but I was mostly happy with Veckatimest - Two Weeks, Fine for Now, Cheerleader - it was an album that was very easy to like.

It seemed to build on the earlier promise; there was this baroque world of charming pop arrangements - twinges of folkish influence (Tim Buckley say) - but it felt current. (Because it was.) Here was a group of keen Radiohead fans, young musicians who might, vocally, steal a hint or two of the acoustic Led Zeppelin from time to time - but were so comfortably, clearly a band of these times, for these times. Any Beach Boys-ish chamber-pop references were updated; this wasn't - at all - a band of retro rockers, in fact there wasn't much overtly rock about Grizzly Bear. But then they didn't settle on the default for indie either: the much overplayed, underdeveloped "kook" factor. This was - through Yellow House and Veckatimest - a pop band. Writing pop songs. You might not hear them on the radio. So, not that sort of pop. But there was reason to be pleased with their albums; to be excited enough about the sound.

And then I forgot about Grizzly Bear for a while. I continued to play Veckatimest and the Friend EP. But I wasn't actively anticipating anything new from them.

I eventually caught up with Daniel Rossen's solo EP, Silent Hour/Golden Mile earlier this year. It ended up being a bit of a teaser for this new Grizzly Bear album - and in some sense that was probably the plan, the EP seems to have been created as an outlet for songs that didn't quite make the cut for the band's record.

But Rossen's EP didn't have enough for me to hang on to - it's nice to listen to. And I've gone back to it since falling very heavily for Shields. But as much as it seemed like a teaser on first listen - it was almost a diversion.


Shields bursts into life with Sleeping Ute and Speak in Rounds, songs that are (for me) still improving with each listen. But in some sense they were great from the first time I heard them.

I've also ended up lining Grizzly Bear's Shields up alongside Dirty Projectors' Swing Lo Magellan - one of my highlights of the year; easily one of my favourite albums of 2012. Now it's not to force a comparison in the sounds and styles of Grizzly Bear and Dirty Projectors - but it's about the level of satisfaction; the progression.

Both bands are following up albums after a nearly three-year gap; Shields follows Veckatimest just as Swing Lo follows Bitte Orca. Both Veckatimest and Bitte Orca were shining examples of the best of what each band had to offer up to that point - an improvement on the style and sound that had been created. Swing Lo Magellan and Shields are albums that show each band building on that by improving the songs. In both cases there's a chance to feel - at first - ever so slightly underwhelmed in comparison with the album that precedes. In both cases they were highlights and such a strong sense of the style of each band; Dirty Projectors had its layered vocal parts down. Sublime. Grizzly Bear had the layers of melody, the swirls and chimes of old pop songs echoing in and around a fresh-faced indie feel.

Style over content is hardly ever a good thing - style and content is the key. Sure. But with Shields and Swing Lo Magellan you could hear them, distinctly, as examples of content triumphing over style - and while that had a satisfaction, most obviously, it could still, in places, ring a bit hollow on first listens.

Both albums have revealed more with time. Both albums, for me, stand as the finest work, to date, from each band. They have you hoping too for what might come next. Imagine the albums in another two or three years from Grizzly Bear and Dirty Projectors. Close listening to their 2012 releases makes you feel  you can actually do that too; you come away with some sense of what could, logically, follow.

Shields doesn't feature a weak track - it feels like an album; we keep getting told the album is dead, but this has been built, it has a flow. And it has a feel, peaks, valleys, movement. But every song is strong and the songs talk to one another - there's a reason Sun in Your Eyes is the closer: there's a need for The Hunt and A Simple Answer to sit in the middle of the album.

Last week I was listening to Shields - a very good headphone album - and I thought, briefly, as third track Adelma snuck into place, that Grizzly Bear probably won't ever make an album like In Rainbows or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or Sound of Silver, albums that I like to think of as - for want of a term (and it's a rather obvious one in the end) - Modern Classics. Adelma feels at first like filler, but then you realise it's a palate cleanser, both a bridge between tracks and more particularly an intro for what is to come.

Yet Again is what follows Adelma.

Now it is unfair to think that Grizzly Bear - or any band - could make an In Rainbows, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or Sound of Silver. The bands that made those records have not been able to replicate that brilliance.

But Yet Again feels like a song that is worthy - or would be worthy - of any one of those albums. That, surely, is good enough. That, surely, means something. Well it does to me anyway.

I go back to Dirty Projectors. I line up Impregnable Question - my favourite from the album (as a tune - and it's hard to pick just one). That song feels like it would fit on a new version of an In Rainbows or Yankee or Silver too.

And that's really an impressive feat. Those three albums are three of the finest from the last decade - we can be objective about this, I would think. This is not a case of personal taste, this is about assessing the worth of these albums as something bold, creative, engaging, successful - exciting. All three deliver. And the bands (Radiohead, Wilco, LCD Soundsystem) have certainly been held as influential and reverential because of, in large part, those particular albums.

In 2012 it's the turn of Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear to stand up, to carry on, to come close. And though they haven't delivered albums quite at the level of the three Modern Classics I've cited they have come close. Very close. And they've made songs within their albums that stand up as being very much in line with what made those albums so great - there's a feeling of worth, but there's little in the way of aggression. There's tension, but there's also a feeling of calm. There's agitation maybe, a little quirk, a little discomfort even and there is most certainly something visceral - but there is a stateliness, a charm. And there is a feeling of three-minute transcendence - of a song being the thing that will transport you up and away from yourself for a moment (or even a few moments) in time. To sit outside of yourself, to sit outside of the music but still be absorbed by it, still be absorbing it.

Grizzly Bear's new album Shields, is, to my ears, a fantastic record. I can't stop playing it. I'm hearing more with each listen. I'm going back to the other records, which, as I've said before (recently) is always a good thing to have happen.

And the timing is spot on. Because I thought the live show would probably be very good anyway - Grizzly Bear is touring New Zealand in late November (click here for tickets/information) - but this new album has me excited at the prospect of just how good the show could be. And that's always a good feeling.

So are you a Grizzly Bear fan? Have you heard Shields? And will you go to the gig/s? What did you think of the other Grizzly Bear albums? And if you've read this far but don't see the fuss with Grizzly Bear at all, feel free to recommend a recent release that's really doing it for you. 

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