On the Striking Loneliness of the New Grizzly Bear

09/21/2012 3:10 PM |

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As you may have read, everywhere, the new Grizzly bear record is out this week and people pretty much love it! Best Grizzly Bear yet! Personally, besides admiring the band’s craft in head nodding sort of way, I’ve never been a huge fan. Amid rolling my eyes at that troll-y LA Times 20 Worst Hipster Bands List, I have to admit that this bit from Dan Weiss actually struck a chord:

“These altar boys embody everything bad about the clean-scrubbed end of the hipster spectrum. They spend more time on expensive and fastidious arrangements than choruses, which they sound annoyed to have to throw in occasionally. Their lyrics evoke nothing you can see with your eyes, as if they assume the “beauty” of their tentative melodies will fill in the blanks.”

Overblown as anything in that article? Yeah, but there’s a kernal of truth there. The band do unquestionably have moments that seem to be about intricacy more than any distinct feeling or concrete lyrical idea. I wouldn’t necessarily say that Shields erases that gripe. But it has a much different feel than the rest of their work, and seems like a bigger departure than has generally been acknowledged.

“Knife”, the band’s first hit from 2006’s Yellow House, fogged up a shaky DIY shack with complicated pop harmonies. Given indie-rock’s general indifference to vocal chops (not to mention punk’s total antipathy to them), the approach was novel. Even in a home-recording context, all of their voices mingling together overwhelmed you into being, at a minimum, impressed. The upped lushness of Veckatimest meant that “shambolic” was forever banished from descriptions of the band’s music, but again, the lingering impression that record gives, really the kernal of what the band was “about”, was their swelled vocal “Ahhhhhh-ahhhh-AHHHHH”s, ready to be deployed at any moment. That record plays out as if they had a “choir blast” pedal at foot to stomp at any given time, and a heavy pair of boots hovering above it. A highlight like “Two Weeks” repeats simple rhythmic synth hits, just to provide foundation for those huge celestial harmonies. I would consider a lot of its tracks fastidious to the point of being fussy nothings. Those weren’t the ones that worked, though.

Shields, for the first time, is a Grizzly Bear record that’s primarily about complicated guitar parts interlocking, and doesn’t focus on the swelling chorale vocals. Though they haven’t entirely given up singing all together in a big, pretty pile, the record is notable for isolating the band’s singers as they cycle in from song to song. It actually keeps the backing to the background. It’s a subtle switch, but the effect is much different. To my ear, Shields has sort of a lonely cowboy feeling to it. Not a particularly hip zone, mind you. My reaction to it might be more Eagles (desperadoes out buildin’ fences) than Fleetwood Mac (coke orgies with marching bands). But songs like the nearly bare ballad “The Hunt” are interesting for kicking that big vocal crutch away from the band, shelving the polite mush that made them famous. All four band members sing, beautifully, but on this record, instead of a group hug, they all sound totally alone. It’s kind of a perverse inversion of their “thing”, really, and even if it doesn’t make me love them, or even decide that they are capable of producing a record that sounds like a good time to me, it does make me think that their “thing” isn’t as cut and dried as I’ve been previously assuming.