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Posted on September 17th, 2012 (11:02 am) by Steve Hanson

A common maxim in fiction writing is if a reader is not invested in the story by the end of the first page, the story is a failure, regardless of what comes afterwards. This alone in mind, Grizzly Bear’s latest album Shields is a resounding success. However, there probably should be a corollary to the aforementioned law; if you do manage an enthralling beginning, you still need to keep the rest of it to more or less the same quality. In this regard, Shields doesn’t hold up quite so well. The album (released September 18 through Warp Records) is frontloaded with the epitome of the Brooklyn quartet’s particular brand of baroque indie rock, filtered through the dual vocals of Edward Droste and Daniel Rossen, and the rhythmic and textural background of Chris Taylor and Christopher Bear. And if the intro proved representative of the whole, Shields would be one of the top albums of the year. Instead, the last 4/5ths of the album is solid in individual moments but slightly inconsistent as a whole, never entering the realm of the inexcusably boring, but still leaving the listener wondering what happened to the thrill offered by the first two tracks.

Shields is Grizzly Bear’s first album since critically-acclaimed offering Veckatimest. The success of that album depended, mostly, upon the extent to which each moment was packed as full as possible with the band’s musical intricacies, while (almost) never coming across as bloated or pretentious. Shields is a very good album because it maintains a comparative level of musical depth. However, it is not a great album because it cannot forget it’s following one that is. Grizzly Bear tries too hard to match Veckatimest’s quality, and ends up with numerous great-sounding moments, but an overall inconsistent feel.

Shields is most remarkable in terms of melodic experimentation, unique song structure, and controlled alterations of tempo. The aforementioned first two tracks showcase the upmost extent of what Grizzly Bear is capable of. “Sleeping Ute” opens the album with a series of oddly-timed guitar notes cascading across a complex rhythmic pattern. The song builds into crescendos before closing with a quiet, somewhat classical-sounding acoustic diminuendo. Immediately following is “Speak in Rounds,” opening with a quieter and slower rhythm over which are chanted the softer, strained lyrics. Suddenly, the song shifts into a faster string of acoustic chords and the listener is once more brought into a faster chorus. Both of these tracks demonstrate Grizzly Bear’s specific ability to create complex shifts in song structure without coming across as disjointed. Here the listener finds the same promise offered by Veckatimest, and if Shields keeps this up, it may in fact exceed the former’s thrill while matching its maturity.

Unfortunately, this standard does not hold up in the next few tracks. The third is the less-thrilling “Adelma,” a roughly one minute instrumental not offering much beyond what I have termed the “pointless interlude.” The next two songs reintroduce lyrics, but compared with the beginning are much more conventional and less impressive. By the end of the first half the listener gets a sinking anticlimactic feeling.

The album redeems itself with “A Simple Answer.” This track is more upbeat in terms of its mid-range tempo and chord progression (save for the dramatic chorus) but it brings the album back to somewhere near level of the opening. The conventionality, however, departs with the seventh track, “What’s Wrong.” Here, Grizzly Bear goes beyond their previously-established sound and seeks out an underlying jazz influence blending with their meandering indie voice. The effect is noticeable, and while this introduces a final section that’s slower and more minimal than what came before, the listener certainly feels another opportunity to reestablish a connection with the album. The next two tracks, “Gun-Shy” and “Half Gate” are not boring, but the dense cluster of slower songs doesn’t really feel like a sufficient conclusion to the first portion of the album.

The final track “Sun In Your Eyes” does provide a sufficient climax, although to the point where the band might be trying too hard to make up for lost ground. The track opens quietly with a simple piano and voice combination, and then suddenly explodes into a loud cavalcade of noise, building and modulating across seven minutes into a powerful, graceful exeunt that almost makes the listener forget the less enthralling moments elsewhere (though not entirely).

Shields provides moments of pure musical inspiration, and despite the incipient top-heaviness, Grizzly Bear does manage to scatter these moments far enough across the album so that it’s never too uneven. However, the discrepancy between the stronger and weaker tracks is enough to make the latter seem more like filler than a band should be comfortable with. And while no portion of the album is likely to send to listeners elsewhere in their iTunes, a few moments may make them wonder when the musical brilliance is going to flare, and when it does wonder why this couldn’t have been the deal all along.

Track List:
1. Sleeping Ute
2. Speak In Rounds
3. Adelma
4. Yet Again
5. The Hunt
6. A Simple Answer
7. What’s Wrong
8. Gun-Shy
9. Half Gate
10. Sun In Your Eyes

Grizzly Bear: Shields
Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

Our Rating

73 / 100
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