2009’s VECKATIMEST is a fantastic album, and it ranks among one of the best albums recorded in the past ten years. Grizzly Bear’s second studio album is as finely crafted and poured over as anything available on the indie-rock market. Maybe it’s the album’s attention to detail; maybe it’s the sincerity the band expressed through the lyrics; maybe it’s the melodies and soaring harmonies; whatever it is, VECKATIMEST is undoubtedly a hard album to follow up. If you haven’t heard the album yet, you really owe it to yourself to stop reading now and check out this previous album. Aside from it being a completely refreshing listen, this album will inform much of the band’s fourth full-length album SHIELDS.
After touring for VECKATIMEST, Grizzly Bear took a 3-year hiatus from making music together to explore their own divergent musical tastes. While SHIELDS is definitely a Grizzly Bear record, it uses a much more varied and scattered approach than the intricate VECKATIMEST. There are moments on SHIELDS that reach out into unexplored territory for the band: psychedelic rock, atmospheric minimalism, and synthesizers. If their previous album was a meticulous exercise in tightly-wound control, this album is a more instinctual and gritty affair.
The opening track, “Sleeping Ute,” makes no attempt to hide the band’s less-polished features. The guitar riff that carries the song is a bit jarring: using a non-standard time signature, it sounds good but feels disorienting. The same frenetic acoustics of “Southern Point” appear on SHIELDS’ second track, “Speaking in Rounds.” Things take a turn for the poppier with “Yet Again,” and “A Simple Answer;” the latter song begins not unlike another well-crafted pop tune, but by the 4-minute mark, the song is completely ditched for a new direction. The remaining two minutes of this song, after abandoning the pop-tune melody, the song changes considerably to a more downbeat, moody course. Between these two songs, the minimalist “The Hunt” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Radiohead record (particuarly on IN RAINBOWS); it’s sparse instrumentation (and inclusion of clarinet?) make this song excellent. The brief interlude “Adelma” is a subterranean and submerged atmospheric exercise – it’s a completely unexpected moment on SHIELDS, and one that I wouldn’t have predicted for Grizzly Bear. The same eerie minimalism is repeated in the outro of the excellent “What’s Wrong.” There’s a groove on “gun-shy” that Grizzly Bear haven’t quite experimented with yet – it’s a smoky and sexy tone, and it slowly comes together to form one of the more accessible tracks on the record. The album ends with “Sun in Your Eyes,” a song that isn’t scared to let a few notes of silence ring out — these moments of silence aren’t annoying or jarring, they come at just the right moment, making the song a wistful, quietly beautiful piece. The ending, complete with harmonies, pounding organs, and distorted bass finds the band ripping loose for the album’s finale.
Make no mistake, SHIELDS is a great record, but it doesn’t have the same “mainstream appeal” that VECKATIMEST had – there’s no potential crossover hits like “While You Wait for the Others” or “Two Weeks.” Instead, this album is chock full of great songs that work best in the cohesion of the album’s entirety. For this reason, this record might be a little less friendly to new listeners (not that that is necessarily a bad thing). I would recommend listeners who have not listened to Grizzly Bear to start with their third album before moving onto this one: VECKATIMEST is a much more accessible and immediate album than SHIELDS, thanks to the support of the aforementioned singles and less scattered direction.
What I like about all of this is that this album doesn’t try to one-up the previous record. Instead, the band tried to do something a bit different – much of what made VECKATIMEST great is represented here, but there’s enough changed and tinkered with that this album is hard to draw complete comparisons to. This album is a must-listen for fans of Grizzly Bear, and it’s a more-than-worthy addition to a band with an extraordinary (but young) catalog. Essential tracks to sample/download: “Sleeping Ute,” “A Simple Answer,” and “gun-shy.”